Recent advances in brain research have confirmed for us that there are qualitative differences between the brain of an adolescent and that of an adult, impacting the way adolescents remember, think, reason, focus attention, make decisions, and relate. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School Medicine, and author of many books related to the neuroscience of behavior and  relationships, writes that these changes show up in the following ways — the adolescent’s search for: novelty, the company of peers, emotional intensity, and creative exploration.

Can these qualities be expressed impulsively, recklessly, audaciously? Absolutely.  But how much do they really account for some of the more aggressive or disrespectful behaviors we see in teenagers? Less than we think.

Saying, for example, that your teenager can’t control his flagrantly combative temper or targeted and vile cursing because his brain is still maturing (or because his hormones are raging) is, I believe, a very different conversation from the one Dan Siegel is having about teenagers experiencing an increase in emotional intensity or engaging in riskier behaviors. A reactive, dysregulated fifteen-year-old who’s freaking out over a canceled concert is displaying altogether different behavior than the teen who walks over to his younger brother rummaging through the refrigerator and shoves him out of his way in order to assert his dominance. A teenage girl who lashes back at friends in response to a social snubbing is an altogether different kid from the one who tells her mother to F*@k off! when told to hand over her phone. 

The shoving, the profanity — that’s not an intrinsic feature of adolescence; that’s just bad behavior. And when we allow bad behavior to be seen as just “typical teen behavior,” we fail to make distinctions between teenagers, and teenagers who are bad actors. This leaves a lot of room for unacceptable behavior to be seen as just another part of adolescence.

While brain changes during adolescence may account for a lot of the misplaced focus, poor time management, impulsiveness, and circuitous reasoning we see, they aren’t the main reason why teens become rude, act defiantly, or communicate aggressively. These behaviors take place within the context of the teenagers’ relationships with others, the ones with parents being the most significant and most frequent. Notably, these relationships are bidirectional, meaning that each person in the relationship affects, influences, and reacts to the other person. Considering this, I think we ought to be looking more closely at factors within a relationship as the primary forces behind our teenagers’ angry or inappropriate responses to adults rather than dismissing them as functions of brain changes, “typical teen behavior,” or adolescent angst. 

When we zero in on parent ~ teen relationships, we will see that the lens is pointed inordinately toward the teen. That means our attention is going to be drawn primarily — maybe exclusively — toward the inappropriate behavior on the part of the teenager toward his or her parents.

That means less attention is being paid to the behavior parents display toward their teenagers. That’s unfortunate, because in the spirit of being fair to our kids I think we have to acknowledge that some of the ways in which parents speak to or behave toward them are as unkind or disrespectful as what they are getting from their own kids. 

Here’s the catch, though. What parents say to their teenagers, even when really angry, is generally far less brazen and bombastic than what teens are willing to say to their parents. Therefore, their comments escape the scrutiny that our teens’ more colorful comments and snap backs draw. But it doesn’t mean they’re any less antagonistic; they just fly under the radar more easily. Moreover, if parents are angry enough, they have something to exploit that the teenager doesn’t — the other one’s dependence on them. You don’t need to be loud or terrorizing to shut a kid down; you can just be mean. 

Without looking at adolescence through this broader lens, we’re essentially allowing the research on adolescent brain development to be hijacked in order to corroborate the running stereotype of teenagers as, essentially, contrarian, uncommunicative, insolent and the like.

And what’s the overall result? The vindication of parents who need to believe that the trials they experience with their teenage sons and daughters, the ones that leave them feeling inept or powerless or baffled, are developmentally-driven, universal in nature, and thus inherently unavoidable. Meaning, it’s not their fault.

It won’t be easy to replace our current cultural narrative about adolescents with a new one in which adults and teenagers are each presumed accountable for their respective roles in the quality of their relationships with each other. I think that parents like being told their teenagers are crazy. It keeps the spotlight off of them, and serves to bond them together as one big troop of weary soldiers charged with raising teenagers as best they can. Telling a parent that her daughter’s moodiness may have less to do with “puberty” or “hormones” and more to do with what’s happening at home may be a tough sell. After all, when you have a fixed and widely accepted explanation for the behavior of others, you really don’t have to reflect on your own.

—- Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D.