Travis was 15. He’d always been a good kid – no trouble, unlike his brothers. His parents saw him as the perfect child.
That’s why it was jolting and perplexing to his parents that this semester he started breaking rules, getting into trouble, and seeming downright provocative. Travis was recently caught drunk after being at friends’ houses and engaging in risky and dangerous activities. He recently remarked to his father, “I can’t wait to get my dirt bike. Then I’ll be able to go anywhere I want and go scary-wild!” Travis’ dad was shocked by this comment and angry that Travis seemed to be purposely and intentionally rebelling. What should his parents do?
Let’s think about the vignette. How we interpret others’ actions – what we think their intentions are and what that means to us significantly guides our reactions. It’s not farfetched for dad to see Travis as a teenager trying to get away with as much as possible. Given this framework, dad reacted with understandable frustration and anger. Most parents of teenagers can relate to this.
But there’s more to the story here. The key to understanding Travis’ [unconscious] communication is noticing that: (a) he has been caught several times and (b) he is now actually TELLING on himself preemptively by saying he plans to go crazy-wild.
If kids really want to get away with something, they don’t squeal to parents. Travis is actually warning his father that he’s out of control and asking for help. Travis is in the throes of impulsive acting out and is himself confused by his behavior. He is uncontrollably drawn to the “rush,” unable to use restraint and judgment, and possibly has a drinking problem.
Contrary to popular belief, recent studies show that teens can accurately evaluate risk, but believe the rewards outweigh the risks. MRI research on brain development shows that teens are limited in their capacity to use good judgment under stress, and restraint in the face of reward’s temptation. Teenagers have also been found to be particularly sensitive to the pleasurable effects of drinking, and have the capacity to drink greater quantities of alcohol than adults before experiencing negative physical effects.
Adolescent brains show increased amygdala activity – the seat of primitive feelings, impulses, and gut reactions. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex – in charge of planning, voluntary control, and behavioral inhibition – is underdeveloped. Further complicating the situation is the potential for alcohol to affect adolescent brains short- and long-term.
These facts don’t mean that we shouldn’t help teens take responsibility for their behavior. But it reminds us that kids who seem to have adult capacities in other areas may still need us to operate as a stand-in and supplement the missing pieces.
Travis is in conflict. He feels compelled to act out, yet equally powerful is his unconscious need to get caught. Kids who are typically “good” and never caused trouble present a particular risk because their distress is often hidden and not seen by parents – painting a confusing picture. This can lead parents to misinterpret what’s happening, minimize the danger, and fail to take protective measures. Here, parents must see beyond the exterior and institute protective measures.
The need to be perfect may be maintained for a variety of reasons linked to family dynamics. Examples of why this happens include unconscious attempts by the child to conceal or disguise family secrets they may silently know about, such as parental alcohol problems and marital conflict. Other reasons include similar efforts to live up to perceived expectations, make parents happy, compensate for parents’ unhappiness, make up for their siblings’ chaos, or protect parents they see as fragile from being upset. But the pressure to be good and have an exterior self eventually becomes unbearable and untenable. The danger of the family’s blind spot here is that the self-destructive behavior will likely escalate until the parents “get” the message and can bear to decode the subtext of their child’s communication.
It’s easy to react out of one’s own feelings with anger, panic, guilt-tripping, punitive measures, lecture, or blame. But the essence of what’s needed is to listen and respond to danger in a firm and caring way. Protection occurs through interested, open, informed, proactive, nonjudgmental conversation and appropriate limits delivered in a nonpunitive way.
The research finding that a close, supportive relationship with parents (as perceived by teenagers) is the most protective measure against underage drinking, sexual activity and violence is good news for us and no surprise.
National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, National Institute of Health. (2006). Make a difference: Talk to your child about alcohol. (NIH Publication No. 06-4314). Bethesda, MD.
National Institute of Alcholism and Alcohol Abuse, National Institute of Health. (2007). Alcohol alert: Underage drinking (NIH Publication No. 67). Bethesda, MD.
Packard, Erika (2007). That teenage feeling. Monitor on psychology, 38 (4), 20-24.
Sabbagh, Leslie (2006, August/September). The teen brain. Scientific American Mind, 17 (4), 21-25.