Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 149

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood," by Lisa D'Amour.

Many girls experience the physical changes of puberty as simply gross. On top of that, girls’ bodies part with childhood at a moment girls don’t select and may not like. To make matters even worse, puberty advances at a speed girls can’t control. Given that girls are striving to part with childhood, you’d think that they’d all welcome the biological shift to womanhood. But they often don’t. Here’s why: girls like to part with childhood on their own schedule. You may have noticed that one minute your daughter lobbies to download songs with raunchy lyrics, and the next, she curls up on the couch in the exact same position she adopted at age six to read a book she enjoyed at age eight. Her seemingly paradoxical behavior is actually brilliant. She’s parting with childhood while regulating the process. She’s sending developmental troops forward to conquer new ground (such as flirting, or considering philosophical questions) and then letting her troops fall back to safe, established base camps (playing with dolls, reading childhood books) when they need to rest and regroup. But then here come the physical realities of puberty! These troops disregard their leader and march ahead on their own. What adults advertise as a joyous blossoming feels to some girls like an all-too-public mutiny.

The sudden force of a teenager’s feelings can catch parents off guard because, between the ages of six and eleven, children go through a phase of development that psychologists call latency. As the term implies, the mercurial moods of early childhood simmer down and girls are pretty easygoing until they become teenagers and their emotions kick up again. Recent developments in brain science offer new insight into why latency ends when it does. Though we used to assume that the brain stopped developing somewhere around age twelve, we now know that the brain remodels dramatically during the teenage years. The renovation project follows the pattern in which the brain grew in the womb. It starts with the lower, primal portions (the limbic system) then moves to the upper, outer areas (the cortex), where the functions that separate humans from other animals live. 

Updates to the limbic system heighten the brain’s emotional reactions with research indicating that the feeling centers beneath the cortex are actually more sensitive in teens than in children or adults. For example, one straightforward study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch teenage brains respond, in real time, to emotional input. The research team showed images of fearful, happy, and calm faces to children, teens, and adults while monitoring the activity of the amygdala, a key player in the emotional reactions of the limbic system. Compared to the brain activity of children and adults, the teens’ amygdalas reacted strongly to fearful or happy faces. In other words, emotional input rings like a gong for teenagers and a chime for everyone else. 

With the lower-to-higher remodeling of the brain, the frontal cortex—the part of the brain that exerts a calming, rational influence—doesn’t come fully online until adulthood. This means that limbic system reactions outstrip frontal cortex controls. Put simply, intense emotions burst through and introduce you, and your daughter, to a new period of emotional upheaval. 

Adults often tell teens that their feelings are at full blast because of “hormones.” This usually doesn’t go over very well, plus it’s probably inaccurate. Despite the obvious coincidence between the beginnings of puberty—with its acne, growth spurts, and dawning smelliness—and the intensification of your daughter’s emotions, research evidence suggests that the impact of pubertal hormones on teenagers’ moods is indirect, at best. In fact, studies find that hormones respond to, or may even be trumped by, other factors that influence your daughter’s mood, such as stressful events or the quality of her relationship with you. In other words, the changes in your daughter’s brain and the events that occur around her are more likely to shape her mood than the hormonal shifts occurring inside of her. 

Here’s the bottom line: what your daughter broadcasts matches what she actually experiences. Really, it’s just that intense, so take her feelings seriously, regardless of how overblown they might seem.

Come out from behind your curtain and offer the real reasons for your rules. Frame conversations about dangerous behavior in terms of the bottom-line risks your daughter might face, not what will happen if she gets busted. And as you take this tack, know that the research is on your side. A long-standing area of study in academic psychology demonstrates that teens with authoritative parents—parents who are warm yet firm and emphasize the reasons for rules—consistently take fewer risks than the teens of authoritarian parents who simply lay down the law and try to gain compliance through punishment.

Parents are often surprised to learn that it’s legal in most American states for teens to consume alcohol in private settings with their parents’ presence and consent. Indeed, the law recognizes that alcohol safety is often less about the alcohol and more about the context in which it is consumed. You can readily look up the exceptions to the minimum legal drinking age; if you want to let your daughter taste alcohol at home under your supervision in order to take some of the mystique out of drinking and underline the critical importance of context, chances are you can do so legally. That said, research suggests that the neural structures associated with feelings of reward can be altered during adolescence by the enjoyable buzz of intoxication. Because the adolescent brain reacts to alcohol and drugs differently than the adult brain does, teenage substance use can shape what the brain deems pleasurable and lay the groundwork for addiction. 

As your daughter ages, you should continue to talk with her about the contextual factors that make teen drinking especially risky. Make it clear that alcohol impairs the judgment of anyone who drinks it and that teens often drink in situations where they need every ounce of good judgment they’ve got. In my conversations with girls, I always invoke an equation with many factors that determine the ultimate outcome. I say, “Consider a situation with the following variables: you go to a party, your friends ditch you, and there are some guys at the party who seem pretty creepy. To that equation, let’s add one more variable: whether you are totally sober, or whether you’ve had a few drinks.” From there, girls can readily imagine any number of bad scenarios if they’ve been drinking. And they can strategize about how they would keep themselves safe if they were sober. 

Never miss an opportunity to frame your expectations for how your daughter will deal with drinking in terms of her responsibility to care for herself. If you know that your daughter will be going to a party where there will be alcohol, you might say, “Parties where teenagers are drinking make us nervous because things can easily get out of control.” From there you could add, “We are counting on you to take great care of yourself. That means keeping your wits about you when you are in a situation that could get out of hand.”

When we’re not taking our daughters’ teenage behavior personally and we help them to stop taking us so personally, we’re better parents. We can admire our daughters’ successes as evidence of their terrific growth (not our goodness), and we can see their trials as proof that they are working to master the developmental strands we now know well. Untangled, separate but completely present, we have a better feel for when we should let our daughters struggle along and when we owe it to them to offer help.

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