The Power of Parental Influence in Uncertain Times
The Power of Parental Influence in Uncertain Times
This is the second in several installments about navigating through the teenage years. In this post I would like to spend some time describing the culture our teenagers find themselves facing; and discuss how parents can both grieve the loss of our compliant naïve children and begin to rewire the brains of our confused adolescents.
It’s Really Scary Out There
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a pretty scary world out there. And it’s not just scary for you and me as adults, but it’s especially harrowing for our teenagers. We have created a world dripping with violence, drugs, and sex, and our children are right in the middle of it. For a moment, let’s delve into this culture of madness that our teens claim “we just don’t understand.”
The temptations begin with the culture of drugs and substance abuse. For teens, drugs provide a short term antidote for the pain of crazy emotions, raging hormones, and a bleak and uncertain future. Although the effects of this antidote are often short term, the eventual use can kill your child. Unfortunately the insanity of the teenage years, and a brain looking for short term pleasure without long term reasoning sees this as a pain free alternative.
Adding to this deadly sin is the potent enticement of adolescent sexuality. Powerful hormones, combined with a need for peer acceptance, curiosity, intimacy, a female desire to please and a male desire to dominate contribute to a brain filled with desire, with little thought for consequences. Our society has also become hypersexualized and kids (even younger than teens) have no way to process this information in a healthy way. These are only a few of the many evil temptations in the world. I could go on to mention violence, negative peer influences, and internet insanity, but I think you get the picture—the world is a scary place, especially to a naïve kid who has just left the comfort of playing with Legos and dolls.
What’s the Protection or the Antidote?
In the last blog post I mentioned that the adolescent brain is in a state of re-wiring; a pruning occurs which is eventually hardwired into the brain. Research shows that parental influence of both a good and bad behaviors has an enormous effect on adolescents. How we interact with our kids gets burned into that adolescent brain telling it how to act as an adult. Thus, as Michael Bradley states, “through the rewiring process, the sins of the parents becomes the insanity of the adolescent. Likewise, the wisdom of the parents can become the salvation of the teenager.”
For the next several paragraphs let’s take a look at this potent influence, and how we can use it to our advantage in training our teens.
- First, as a parent we need to begin to grieve and leave behind the image of our sweet compliant child. Few of us are prepared for the emotional hurt which occurs when we lose the close, loving relationship that we had with our young children as they enter adolescence. Our own need for nurturing is often lost to a teen who is wrapped up in their own emotional struggles. So what is a parent to do? GRIEVE, and remember that this teenager in front of you didn’t kill your child, but IS your child, just reborn once again. Your job is to get to know this new person, and navigate the growing pains together. Keep your eyes open for the excitement of getting to know your new young adult. Focus on the good and show your child that you are in control of your own emotions. Above all exhibit some strength, and demonstrate to your child that you are there for her even when she is distant from you.
- Next take a look at some of the ways in which you shape your child. Reinforcement is the primary tool of hard-wiring behaviors into your child. Reinforcement in simple terms is anything that increases behavior. Punishment, the opposite of reinforcement, is designed to decrease behavior. Although this is fairly straight forward and simple, it can get a bit confusing when we are talking about the adolescent brain, and that is because we have to add one more component to the mix—the teenage brain’s craving for new sources of stimulation. Adolescents CRAVE excitement, new experiences, and novelty. Think back to my discussion of scary environments. The reason that drugs, sex, and other undesirable behaviors are often appealing to adolescents is because of this constant need for brain stimulation. Now couple this with the fact that the reasoning portion of the brain is not fully developed, and you have a recipe for disaster. This is why adolescents often push their parent’s “buttons” in order to get a reaction from them. Your screaming at them can become addictive and act as positive reinforcement to them. In the world of the developing brain, what we think as negative can often be positive. So what is a parent to do in the face of this crazy behavior pattern? Actually the best strategy it is to give no reinforcement to the aggressive outburst and behavior. Go into shutdown mode and reinforce only the good behavior. This is where parenting can get really personal. It requires you to control your own needs and emotions and actually “walk the walk” of an adult role model.
I would like to save the final few suggestions for the next installment. As a final discussion I would like to present some research on how important modeling or copying behavior is in training the adolescent brain and finally present ways to improve your teen’s respect towards you.
Bonnie Gonzalez has 36 years of experience as a counselor. She has taught high school and college classes and is now offering Intro to Psychology and AP Psychology courses through Aim Academy.
Reference material from Michael J. Bradley’s, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy, Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind, Harbor Press: 2003.