Adolescence: What Happened to my Happy Child?

by Linda Ray Miller

Mother Nature plays a cruel trick on parents. You get past the toilet training, the tantrums that occur because of a lack of vocabulary, and the clinginess of toddlers just learning to explore the world on their own, and you wind up with a fairly easy-going, fun-loving child. You can start to have real conversations about important matters, and you delight in the things that your child is learning and experiencing. Then, just as you relax and think that you’ve got this parenting thing down cold, BOOM! Adolescence strikes.

Suddenly, your easy-going child is a suspicious, angry, sullen teenager. They have incredible mood swings that make you suspect bi-polar disorder, and they stop talking to you about everything that is going on in their life. What is going on? What should a compassionate parent do?

What’s Happening to My Body?

First of all, adolescence brings about tremendous changes in your child’s body, that may cause them to become very self-conscious. Their body grows taller, sometimes out of proportion to their weight. The effects of puberty set in with hair growth, menstruation, changes in their voice, acne, and muscle development. Because they are so aware of their body and the changes going on, they assume everyone else is focused on them, too. They develop what is called “the spotlight syndrome”, where they move through life confident that everyone in the world is looking at them and judging how their body is developing.

Make sure you are open and honest with your children about their bodies and their development. The more “matter of fact” and the less “shocked” you are about their questions, the better. As much as you can, simply listen to them. The best gift you can give to your children is a listening, non-judgmental ear.

What’s Happening to My Brain?

Adolescence also brings on an explosion of brain cells as the child-like brain develops into a fully-functioning adult brain. This development takes 10-12 years. Scientists believe that the adult brain is not fully functional until about age 24-25.

The young adolescent is controlled by the part of the brain called the amygdala. This part of the brain is primarily concerned with survival. It closely watches the environment for any sign of danger. It triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” response at any perceived threat.

The amygdala is reactive, impulsive, and instinctive. When the amygdala is in control, you really do believe everyone is out to get you. So you lash out (fight), push away (flight), or retreat inside your shell (freeze). This is normal teenaged behavior.

All this does not mean that amygdala-driven behavior is appropriate or desirable. Of course not! It will keep you alive, but will not help you form the attachments and connections so necessary to adult living. But it helps to recognize these behaviors for what they are – a response to feeling out of control.

Slowly, another part of your brain is developing: the prefrontal cortex. This section of your brain is located right behind the forehead and is responsible for interpretation and planning. While the amygdala is reactive and impulsive, the pre-frontal cortex is calm and logical. The pre-frontal cortex can interpret facial signals and helps you figure out whether you are truly in danger or not. It can help you plan responses that will keep you safe and in harmony with those around you.

So, What’s a Parent to Do?

First of all, recognize that teenage flare-ups are perfectly normal and rarely have anything to do with you. Do NOT take them seriously! When your child is calm, and all is right with the world, take the time to explain what is going on with their body and their brain. Assure them that you will be there with them, and when they explode because of an overactive amygdala, you will be there for them, still loving them, still guiding them, but letting them develop into the wonderful unique human being that they were born to be. Help them learn to apologize when their actions are not helpful, and celebrate as you notice signs of maturity developing. Above all, keep a sense of humor and a sense of your self intact. Put a sign on your mirror where you will see it every day: “It’s just a phase.” You will survive it.

Linda Ray Miller is a Parent Coach based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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