A matter of grey matter

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Teenage kids tuning you out? Experts say you can blame the adolescent brain, but don’t give up.

Halifax — When teenagers push parents away, are they actually trying to get closer? When they spend hours and hours on Facebook, could they be pining for a deeper family connection instead?

Despite conventional wisdom, adolescents still long for family ties, says Halifax psychologist Sharon Clark. And if the mixed signals sound confusing, don’t worry. So is the teenage brain — still not fully developed, still a mystery to many a mom and dad.

Clark is a psychologist and team leader for the IWK Health Centre’s Adolescent Centre for Treatment, which treats teenagers with complex mental health disorders.

But she also recently held a public seminar for parents coping with the more typical ups and downs of adolescence.

She wants parents to know that some of the trouble is a matter of grey matter.

“Your frontal lobes, which is all your decision-making, (are) really not fully developed until you’re into your 20s,” she says in a recent interview. “So sometimes we really need to think about adolescence as being more like a … version of a kid than an adult, and I think we push them sometimes too fast to become adult-like when developmentally they’re still not at that stage.”

That means they’re more prone to risks, less likely to consider consequences and more apt to become enmeshed in a push-pull between independence and security.

So rather than just tuning out or cracking down, parents should get to know the ever-changing child in their midst.

Be curious, Clark advises. Find out what’s behind the late nights or the drinking or the defiance. Stay connected. And look for opportunities — if you can imagine — to hang out.

“I think sometimes we forget to invite them to do things,” Clark says.

“When they’re saying, ‘Hey, I want more money,’ what’s that about? Is it that they actually want to go shopping with you? You? Because they want to hang out with you? But I think we have become a culture where we have decided that they’re not interested in their parents and I would argue that that’s not the case, that they’re actually desperately looking for their parents to be involved in their lives.”

That’s not to say their parents have to be just like friends. Clark is a big advocate of structure and responsibility. And consequences, if teens don’t meet those responsibilities.

Expect them to be home for supper, for instance. Expect them to do household chores. Suggest they volunteer.

And if they don’t abide by the rules, such as breaking a curfew, make those curfews shorter until they show they can be trusted again.

“I think teens are really trying to negotiate their sense of identity and who they are and I think that they’re trying to deal with adult-like situations … and sometimes they’re given too much freedom to do that,” says Clark, who has a

PhD in psychology and is an adjunct assistant professor in the clinical PhD program of Dalhousie University’s psychology department.

“I think it’s hard sometimes for teens to be able to say, ‘I actually need you to set limits for me and when I have limits set I feel safer and more secure.”’

But parents can balance those limits, she says,  allowing safer risk-taking like skateboarding, rock climbing or funky hair colours.

“It’s not really that damaging, but it’s a way for them to assert themselves.”

Organizations: IWK Health Centre, Dalhousie University

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