Believe it or not, there are many cultures in the world where there is no adolescence as we Americans know it. Kids don’t separate from the adult world and break into “tribal” groups. Instead, they are expected to function as adults as soon as they reach puberty. The young people experience themselves as adults and behave accordingly.
Not so in much of America. In many, perhaps even most communities, kids from as young as 10 to as old as 25 are generally expected to act like, well, kids. The larger culture has an expectation that teens and early 20s young adults will be risk takers, irresponsible at times, and self-centered. Those expectations seem to be in the very air we breathe. It’s blamed on hormones. It’s blamed on brain development. It’s blamed on peer pressure.
And yet — American adolescents have the same shifts in hormones going on as their counterparts in other parts of the world. Similarly, brain development is the same the world over. Every culture includes generational cohorts. So why do many American young people grow up much more slowly than those of the same age in other places?
The difference is that adults in other cultures provide a substitute for the brain’s prefrontal cortex in the form of external controls. The seat of such things as setting goals and priorities, planning, organization, regulation of emotions and, yes, impulse control, is the prefrontal cortex of the brain, a part of the brain that is not fully developed until the early 20s.
It is impulse control that dictates how we respond to our moods. It is impulse control that contains hypersexuality, inhibits driving too fast or breaking other safety and social rules, and prevents abuse of alcohol and drugs. It is impulse control that keeps young people from acting on whatever hare-brained idea they come up with. In cultures where adulthood is assumed by age 10, tradition, cultural mores and unified adult responses provide external impulse control until the young person develops internal impulse control of their own.
This is not to blame American parents and other adults in the kids’ lives for our adolescents’ misbehaviors. It is merely a comment on what has evolved in American culture. Irrational moods and behavior are excused as hormonal. Out of control behavior on Spring break for high-schoolers and college students is both lamented and accepted. College “kids” are expected to experiment with alcohol and to have wild parties. Adults often regale each other with the “war stories” of things they got away with when they were young. It is accepted as normal for the kids to look to their peers (who are as underdeveloped as they are) for guidance about their behavior instead of to the adults. Being young and irresponsible is seen as a right and a rite.
How can American parents, then, guide their children to and through adolescence relatively unscathed despite a culture that seems to conspire against it? The answer is for adults to reclaim the responsibility and the right to provide the external “brain” the kids need until their internal brain catches up.
No single parent can change the entire culture. But family rules, routines and expectations for responsibility from the time children are small (within what is age-appropriate) helps them develop positive habits and values. These will stand them in good stead when their hormones start changing and their peer group starts challenging the need to manage their impulses. Here are five things every parent can do to help their children be ready for the teen years.
5 steps for getting ready for the teen years
- Model adult behavior: Our children learn more from what we do than what we say. When adults follow social, safety and community rules, kids learn that doing so is part of being an adult. When their parents behave in ways that reflect positive values and civil behavior, the kids take it in as naturally as breathing. But the same is true if adults cheat on their taxes and brag about it, use a “fuzz buster” to enable speeding, claim that a small 12 year old is actually 8 in order to score reduced admissions, etc. Then kids learn that rules are made to be broken and that the only crime is getting caught.
- Talk to your kids. To learn how to be mature adults, kids need conversations with the mature adults who love them. The 2014 American Time Use survey showed that from 2010 to 2014, parents had deliberate conversations with their children for, on average, only 3 minutes a day, and parents read to their kids for 2.4 minutes per day (about one picture book’s worth). Yes, they did spend additional time with their kids if we count watching TV together, time in the car or time spent hurrying through chores. But kids need focused conversations with their parents about ethical and moral issues if they are to learn how to manage life ethically and morally.
- Take time for training: Modeling and talking aren’t enough. Kids master such things as prioritizing, time and money management and patience by being taught to how to prioritize, manage time and money, and be patient. They need training in practical skills if those skills are to become habits. Set routines for getting ready in the morning, for doing chores and homework, for getting ready for bed at night, etc. to provide external structure for daily living until the child internalizes it. By the time a kid is a teen, these activities of daily life will be habits.
- Set clear limits: External limits are lessons in impulse control. Kids rarely balk at rules when there are good reasons for them and when they are fairly and consistently applied. Consequences for breaking the rules need to be enforceable and clear. Set age-appropriate rules for behavior and explain why they are necessary. Be consistent in doing what you said you would do if rules are broken. Respect their developing brains (and developing impulse control) by loosening the rules as the kids grow and show readiness.
- Don’t buy excuses: Don’t accept “My hormones made me do it” or “Everyone else does it” as excuses for antisocial or dangerous behaviors. Take your child to a doctor if hormones seem truly out of whack and get treatment. No problem there? Then work on teaching your teen how to cope. Learning how to handle moods is part of growing up. Be clear that nobody makes anybody do anything. We can’t control what other people think, feel, say or do but we can control what we think, feel, say or do in response. That’s also part of growing up.
It’s a fact: A parent can do all of these things and the undertow of larger cultural tolerance for teen mischief and misbehaviors and/or the draw of a risk-taking peer group may be forces the kids cannot resist. That’s one of the scarier parts of being a parent. But it’s important not to underestimate the positive impact of laying in responsible attitudes and habits from the start. Often enough, those lessons in how to be an adult eventually kick in — even for kids who experiment with risky behaviors during adolescence.