How to Survive the Holidays with Your Adolescent

Dispelling a few common myths could greatly improve parent-teen relationships

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For many of us, the holiday season means gathering with family. But for many of us with adolescents, this family “free time” can come to feel anything but relaxed. Your son has only been home from college for 40 minutes and already you’ve had at least three arguments. Your high school daughter slept through a long-awaited holiday lunch with grandma. As the parent of two kids just past their teen years, I know all too well the feeling when, by day three of the holiday break, you’re already counting down the hours until your children return to school and you return to your usual routine.

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As I set out to do research for my new book, Brainstorm, which explores the adolescent years, I found that many commonly held views about this age are not consistent with new findings about the science of the adolescent brain. If we don’t unmask these myths, we’ll have a much harder time coping with our teenagers and the changes that occur during this formative period. Here are some common myths:

  1. Raging hormones are the cause of erratic or confusing adolescent behavior. While hormone levels do rise after puberty, the primary cause of behavioral change during adolescence is the “remodeling” of the teen brain. This pruning down of neural connections and the enhancement of brain communication through “myelination”—which enables basic cells and neurons to more efficiently communicate with one another—takes time and energy. Adolescents are not  “under the influence” of hormones. Rather, their brains are simply in flux as they transition from childhood to adulthood.
  2. Adolescent risk behavior is due to impulsivity and lack of knowledge about possible dangers. While we indeed are in a process of learning to control our impulses during adolescence, especially during the early years, studies reveal that when teens pursue risky behavior, they are usually aware of the potential dangers. The problem is that this rarely stops them from going through with their “plans.” This is because the evaluative circuits in the adolescent brain are transitioning such that they tend to focus on the positive and thrilling outcomes of a choice and to minimize concerns about the risk. That’s right: even as teens register the potential danger of risky behaviors, they still gravitate toward them. Therefore, as parents, cautioning alone doesn’t help. Instead, helping adolescents develop their own value systems (i.e. Do I want to be a person who endangers myself or others?) can help them learn to make better decisions and minimize dangerous behaviors.
  3. Adolescence is a period of immaturity. Adolescence is in fact a time of transformation that is necessary for both the individual and our species to adapt to an ever-changing world. For instance, the teenage brain’s emphasis on risk-taking empowers adolescents to leave the safe world of their home for an outside world which is uncertain and filled with danger. Without a change in mindset, who would make such a transition? When your adolescent is at home for the holidays, realizing that their behavior is likely a part of their need to push back and assert independence can help with seeing their behavior as necessary, not immature.

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If we acknowledge and understand that adolescence is a period of life that prepares us to move out into the unknown world, we adults will be better able to cut our adolescent kids some slack. The great news for parents is that having the opportunity to love and be there for your adolescent means that you also have the chance to rediscover the purpose of this amazing time in life.

One of the most fascinating things I’ve learned from research on the human brain is that we are all, quite literally, shaped by our relationships with one another—the brain is truly plastic and, indeed, we never stop learning and growing. This said, there is no better time than the holidays to allow the relationship between adolescent and adult to be filled with understanding and respect—both ways. We adults have a lot to learn from our adolescent kids. If we can manage to give them some space, we might be pleasantly surprised at how they’ll rise to the occasion and teach us a thing or two.

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