Over the course of this week I’ve presented many counter-cultural ideas for fostering a child’s healthiest development, including:
- opting for imagination and play over reading and writing for the young child
- opting out of scheduling an array of diverse “enrichment” opportunities
- emphasizing relationship and human connection
- foregoing digital devices
- celebrating a rhythm of predictability and sameness
- welcoming boredom
- fending off prematurely adult concerns
- cultivating wonder
- strengthening your role as leader
All of these ideas are rooted deeply in the science of brain development as well as lesser understood aspects of human development that recognize the child’s inherent wholeness and latent potential. Your child is not a blank slate or empty vessel who needs to be filled up with copious amounts of excellent information. Your child comes to you with an intact intellect that is gathering energy and waiting to unfold in good time, like a flower in the bud. You would never pry open a rosebud to somehow maximize it or improve upon it! Instead, you would make sure it has the best soil, and nourishing fertilizer to support its optimal unfolding.
So it is with our children. But we are the soil in which our children grow. For those precious and critical early years, we are their earth, their sun and their water. If we are willing to embrace that daunting and magnificent responsibility, then the possibilities for their unfolding, their wellbeing, and their lifelong success are virtually unlimited.
Nurturing Your Teen’s Brain & Being
And when they’re teetering on the cusp of adulthood, what is it that our teens need from us to continue unfolding in the healthiest way?
Your availability as off-board brain — The famously mercurial nature of the young teen’s emotionality, and the questionable judgment that marks their sometimes-infeasible plans and outrageous behaviors, can now be largely explained by our current understanding of the brain at this age. While the brain structures that govern what one researcher calls the “sober second thought” are under major construction and remodeling, your teen needs you to be a locus of calm, reasoned, loving stability until his newer, more mature structure is built inside him.
As your teen literally comes undone at the neurological level — as evidenced by fMRI scans — your service is required to augment his curtailed brainpower. Discuss plans, alternate plans, and fallback plans; boundaries and restrictions; and agree in advance on consequences for violations. Despite all evidence to the contrary (“Mom, puh-leeze!“… “Dad, really, I got it…”), he needs you to do the most intricate tightrope walk imaginable: to be available yet inconspicuous; non-judgmental yet strong in your convictions; interested in his life yet respectful of his autonomy. And always at the ready with a sober second thought.
Your championship and optimism — Can you think of another word in the English language that so reliably, so unanimously, elicits the rolling of eyes and groans of fear/contempt/disgust as “teenager”? That is one reason I was so delighted with National Geographic’s “adaptive story” about adolescence — about how classic teen traits — like the taste for high-risk behavior with little thought toward consequences — can now be seen as adaptive evolutionary traits adapted over eons to equip them for the most scary, dangerous maneuver of a lifetime: leaving home and going out into the world. (Were there boomerang Neanderthals, I wonder?)
When seen in this way, we may have to thank teen traits for the fact that any of us are here at all! Maybe this can help us reframe our collective teen-aversion and cultivate more compassion for them as well.
The young adolescent around twelve or thirteen is often disappointed by the realities of his world, the foibles of the formerly invincible adults around him, and his shaken surety about himself and his place in the order of things. This discouragement can be transformed into an enthusiastic embrace of the world, if the dejected early adolescent finds adults around him to foster and support his emerging sense of idealism. Adults around him who model integrity, passion, courage, engagement, and their own dedication to an ideal and to possibilities for the world — this is what the child at this age so dearly needs.
Instead, as our child begins to look and act so grownup, and can carry on sophisticated conversations, we tend to lay on her our wearied, disheartened outlook on the world — our pessimism, our complaints. Educator Jack Petrash tells the story of going camping with his teenaged son, who finally put his foot down about his father’s doomsday litany regarding current events. His son told Jack that he needed him to not complain about the state of the world, its questionable leaders, the environment, etc.; he needed to feel his dad’s hope for the world he is about to inherit. It was a game-changing moment for Petrash, who suggests that parents “strive to be lighthearted and buoyant on a regular basis.”
Your Continued Love, Connection & Interest
It’s so simple it’s almost laughable. The idea that money needs to be spent on research that proves the importance of parental relationships for the wellbeing of children — at all ages. But there it is: research on adolescent risk and resilience consistently turns up the finding that the most protective factor is strong attachment with an adult.
One of the largest resilience studies turned up the primary finding that “teenagers with strong emotional ties to their parents were much less likely to exhibit drug and alcohol problems, attempt suicide, or engage in violent behavior and early sexual activity.”
The Simple Take-Away for Parents
In the course of his pioneering research on youth resilience, psychologist Julius Segal reviewed studies from around the world and concluded that the single factor that most strongly protects children from being overwhelmed by stress is “the presence in their lives of a charismatic adult — a person with whom they identify and from whom they gather strength.”
Who was that person for you? Who do you think it will be for your children? (It doesn’t have to be just parents.)