Trying to unravel the mysteries of the teenage mind.
He sits there right across me on the couch with the PlayStation controller in his hands, noise-free headphones covering his ears, eyes firmly glued to the screen. I am trying to ask him about something but receive no response. After two attempts, I look up from my laptop and realise that he can’t hear me. He is in his own little world, inside an action-packed animated game, destroying the enemy, becoming the hero, while I sit back and sip on my coffee trying to understand my 15-year-old boy, who is growing up faster than I can blink!
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Understanding your teen
As a stay-at-home mum, I must say that I enjoyed every little bit of his (and my younger son’s) childhood. It feels like a long time ago when our days were filled with reading stories, building Lego models and solving massive jigsaw puzzles. He was barely six when he started football and even in the coldest of winters (we were in London then), my son would get ready all by himself in his newly-acquired Arsenal football kit – pulling up his super-long football socks, inserting his shin pads and packing his little bag before he came to drag us out of bed!
The reason I am bringing up this childhood phase (besides the fact that I love reminiscing about those days) is because I believe that deep within the tough exterior that teens project, lies a little boy or girl, who is trying his or her best to face to the world, be independent, form their own circle of friends, make their own choices and enjoy life on their own terms. Puberty brings with it a lot of challenges and changes that they have to face. The physical changes are apparent (and we usually do a good job of guiding them through it), but what we can’t see, and sometimes overlook, is the huge emotional change that they are going through with the development of the teenage brain!
Changes in the teenage brain
Understanding teens can be difficult, so after much “googling” and browsing through some teenage behaviour-related websites, here’s what I found. When children are very young, their brains get a massive growth spurt and are almost as big as adult brains by the time they reach primary school. However, it still needs remodelling to function as an adult brain and adolescence is the time for those changes to happen. The change starts at the back of the brain – here, unused processing parts get trimmed away and at the same time, other connections are strengthened. It’s the brain’s way of becoming more efficient. The changes to the front of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) happen last, often continuing well into their twenties. This is the part of the brain that is used for decision-making and problem-solving. While this part of the brain is still in the process of being remodelled, teenagers rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems. Any guesses what the amygdala is associated with? Emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour (are you beginning to understand the mood swings?!). So, remind yourself of this the next time your teenager (who seems mature enough to handle complicated trigonometry) gets emotional because you reminded him or her to make the bed!
How can you help them?
During this phase, it is important for us to be able to understand our teens and their emotions, to believe in them, and for them to know that they have our solid support. They need opportunities to grow and at the same time need clear-cut and consistent boundaries. More than anything, they need love and respect from us adults. Here are some of the ways you can engage them:
1. Being there
One of the benefits of being a stay-at-home mum is that I can always be available to my boys. While most of the time they can be quite uncommunicative, there’s sometimes a tiny window that suddenly shows the “OPEN” sign and I grab the opportunity! My friends who have full-time office jobs have told me that sometimes they have it easier because their teens are pleased to have them around for a short while and apparently open up more readily. With teenagers, there are really no timings, no places, no rules and no predictions for when they choose to share things. When it happens, conversations about studies, school life, friends, girlfriends/boyfriends can begin in a blink of an eye. Be prepared to always be there for your not-so-little ones when they want to communicate.
2. Show a genuine interest in their passion
This is not always an easy thing to do, especially when you just can’t connect to it – in my case, it’s PS4 games! But when I see his cute little “man-boy” face lighting up, I try my best to understand and get involved in this hard-hitting, noisy warrior game. Luckily, my husband takes over on this one and I feel most happy when I see the dad-son bonding (even if it’s about their favourite computer game!).
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3. Trust them
As a mother, my instinct is to protect my babies, shield them from the cruel world and guide them so that they don’t fall and get hurt. But it is very important for teenagers to be independent and to take risks. Sometimes, you just have to sit back and trust their judgement and let them make their own choices. All those childhood conversations, values taught, time spent together when they were little, will now influence their independent decisions. A safe environment with consistent loving support will help them face this world on their own. Often, they will make mistakes, but that is okay too as long as they learn and mature.
4. Engage their time and mind in healthy activities
How teenagers use their time is crucial to brain development. Let all those hormones, energy and emotions be channelled down the right path. Music, sports, academics or languages – sign them up for whatever they are interested in. Other than hobbies, some set tasks and rules are useful too. Helping with washing dishes or doing the laundry over the weekend is mandatory in our house. Chores help teach life skills and teamwork and kids learn responsibility and self-reliance. Recently, we’ve been treated to special home-made burgers prepared by my son! From downloading the recipe to buying the ingredients, the preparation to cooking, he did it all (I just wish the cleaning up had been included in his endeavour!).
5. Consistency and routine
When my children were babies, I believed in “feed on demand”. That said, my life only got some semblance of sanity and peace after a daily routine was established. Whether babies, teenagers or adults, I believe we all need structure in our lives. Our teens are going through physical and emotional changes and a consistent and regular pattern to the week will certainly help provide stability and security.
6. Love them and love them more!
Behind that grumpy face and the bored look is your little baby who grew up too fast. Your teen may look big and tough, pretend not to care or act as if he or she doesn’t need you, but hidden underneath all those layers are anxieties and fears caused by peer pressure, studies and a lot more. So just hold them tight, cuddle them and let them know you are there for them. Then no matter where they go or what they do, they will always have a safe nest to fly back to!
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