Experiencing Teen Drama Overload? Blame Biology Tweens and teens go through developmental changes that can be exasperating for parents and can make them feel ineffective. Experts talk about those trying teen years and how parents can learn to cope more effectively while their child moves toward adulthood.

Experiencing Teen Drama Overload? Blame Biology

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Today in Your Health, we'll try to understand why teenagers act out. Generations ago, parents didn't worry much about that problem. They just didn't tolerate it. Since the 1970s, many parents have put up with more, trying to encourage self-esteem in their kids.

INSKEEP: Which in many cases means the parents have to battle more with their kids. This morning, we'll hear some biological reasons that kids misbehave, and also what parents can do about it. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Taryn Cregon is a single parent who lives in Mays Landing, New Jersey with her 13-year-old daughter, Zoe.

Ms. TARYN CREGON: I still have, on some days, a wonderful relationship with my daughter. But it goes from this really back-and-forth, loving relationship to almost seeming like that person looks at you like you're enemy number one, all the time. You know, it's really tough.

NEIGHMOND: Especially since Taryn and Zoe used to be so close. They had lots of fun, says Taryn - camping, going to theater, to museums.

Ms. CREGON: She's really a beautiful person. I see her with small children at camp and her little cousins and stuff, and she's fabulous. And she's really sweet with her aunts, her uncle, my mom. It's just�me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEIGHMOND: And now pretty much every single morning, Taryn says, there's an argument about something. Take one morning not long ago.

Ms. CREGON: I was getting ready for work. She was getting ready for camp. And I can hear her in the living room. And I can hear, like, hairspray.

And I'm like, Zoe, what are you - are you spraying hairspray while you're sitting on the couch. And she's like, yeah. And I'm, like, why are you doing that? You're going to get hairspray on the couch. And then it just, you know, she's like, well, you were in the bathroom, and I didn't want to be in your way. And I say, Well, Zoe, that's why I told you that you need to get ready up in your room. Well, I didn't feel like walking up the stairs again.

And by this time, like, you know, I'm really frustrated because I'm, you know, why am I going back and forth with this person? So I don't think I'm being unreasonable, but she's coming back at me like I am being unreasonable.

NEIGHMOND: A pretty typical dilemma, says psychologist Laura Kastner, who, for more than 30 years, has been helping parents work toward more calm in the home. Kastner is a clinical psychologist in Seattle and she teaches at the University of Washington. In this situation, she says, both mother and daughter have gotten tangled up in what Kastner describes as emotional flooding.

Dr. LAURA KASTNER (Psychologist, University of Washington): And when we flood, we are having neurons fire in this emotional part of the brain. And so our heart rate goes up. We have distorted cognitions. You know, we think in terms of black-white terms. So if I'm good, you're bad. And they're both doing that at the same time, right?

It's the worst time in any intimate relationship. You know, the daughter feels attacked. She's just innocently sitting there, you know, trying to get her hair done. And the mother sees her new sofa about to be ruined.

NEIGHMOND: Over the past decade, researchers have provided Kastner and other psychologists with biological evidence that explains why teenagers see things and react to things so differently than adults.

Take, for example, facial expressions.

Dr. KASTNER: They're more likely to see, for instance, a classic face that depicts surprise as anger and hostility.

NEIGHMOND: Pediatrician James Chattra is in private practice in Redmond, Washington. He describes how, at about age 12, the teenage brain begins a massive shift in the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain.

Dr. JAMES CHATTRA (Pediatrician): Sometimes that prefrontal cortex that allows us to take a break, stop and think, is not working as well. It's going through this amazing pruning and rewiring shift. So it becomes this compelling picture of if you know that these neurons are getting wiped out in large amounts, what do you do as a parent?

NEIGHMOND: Chattra and Kastner agree. For starters, parents have to understand the neurological changes occurring in their teenager, changes that cause teens to take big risks and sometimes even do dangerous things.

Like this scenario, says Kastner. Say your child goes to a sleepover. The kids sneak out, go to someone's house, and spray shaving cream all over the house and cars. The police come and give them a tongue lashing and send them back to the host family, who promptly delivers them home to you in the middle of the night.

The natural reaction for parents, says Kastner, is to say: What were you thinking? But the joke's on us, she says. They weren't thinking.

Dr. KASTNER: They were running like wildebeests in the canyon. Just go, go, go. You know, they were flooded and excited and not really thinking through the consequences of their actions.

NEIGHMOND: Even in this situation, Kastner says to parents the first line of defense: stay calm. Tell the teen to just go to bed, and that you'll deal with consequences tomorrow.

Then, the next day, the parent takes charge. Here's Kastner's recommendation: Sit the teenager down and say something like this...

Dr. KASTNER: What I want you to do is I want you to write a note about self-reflection and self-critique about how you got into this incident. And I want you to write about what you would do differently if you had another chance at it, what your regrets are, where you went off track, what skills you might need to do this differently the next time, your ideas about reparation to the family, the host family, the family that got shaving-creamed all over their house, maybe even to the police officer that wasted his time on you. So write this down, and based on the quality of this self-critique, I will decide some discipline, but it will be small, medium or large, based on the quality in which I think you've learned from your mistake here.

NEIGHMOND: And there's another benefit to the writing and self-critique: It stimulates the thinking part of the teen brain and gets them away from the emotional frenzy. Steering clear of emotions is difficult for adults, too, but it's something parents just have to learn how to do, says Kastner.

Pediatrician James Chattra says there's a lot of evidence behind her advice.

Dr. CHATTRA: She incorporates this mountain of good research and says, practically, this is how you can apply this. This is how it translates when you're trying to think about your conversations with your kids. So the key thing with her, she brings good science, good research to the old art of parenting.

NEIGHMOND: Kastner offers strategies to help parents stop arguments with teens in their tracks.

Here's Taryn Cregon's description of something practically every parent lives through.

Ms. CREGON: I've recently started, in the past couple of months, trying to tell her just to say okay, mom, when I ask her to do something, just say okay, mom, and that's it. And that's all you have to say, and things will be so much better. But she can't string those two words together, ever - like, she just can't. She has to say the last thing.

NEIGHMOND: Let them have the last word.

Laura Kastner.

Dr. KASTNER: A lot of parents say I'm not going to let them get away with that. I say, you might be right, but are you effective? So parents are often taking the bait of teenagers just throwing all that stuff, I want to live elsewhere, you're so - you're the meanest mom, you don't make my brother do anything. And there's just all these wild, sort of attacking statements to make us co-miserable because we're the boss of the home, and whatever. But we need to let that riffraff go and just cease and desist, because it's going nowhere. And a lot of extended arguments that happen with children are happening because we take the bait.

NEIGHMOND: So in the case of Taryn, Zoe, the couch and the hairspray, Kastner suggests that Taryn simply say stop the hairspray and forget the back and forth arguing.

Laura Kastner.

Dr. KASTNER: You know, when we're in an emergency situation, it's really helpful to look at ourselves as being like policemen or firemen or a pilot that needs a protocol - an emergency room physician, you know, a protocol. Don't think. Just do the protocol. The protocol is, first and foremost, cool down. Because you - you know, we don't want to drive under the influence of alcohol, and we don't want to talk to our loved ones under the influence of extreme emotion.

NEIGHMOND: Take a breath, says Kastner. Go outside for a minute. The important thing, she says: get calm.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can read an excerpt from Laura Kastner's new book and pick up a few of her parenting strategies at npr.org.

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