Prior to serving as a Superintendent, I had a very important role as a scientist. I spent day and night studying a very particular ‘genus’ within the Animal Kingdom, one with very strange characteristics that many scientists fear studying. Their classification is as follows:
Yes, that’s right. I was a middle school principal and a renowned scientific expert in the frightening genus of the soon-to-be evolved species of the early adolescent. Now before you begin to feel sorry for me, you have to know that I loved it. Deep inside, I’m really a middle school kid trapped in an adult’s body. I have often said, give me 800 middle school kids and a bullhorn and I’m fine. Give me ONE toddler, even one that shares my last name, and I’m a mess.
I get middle school kids.
And as such, there was never a shortage of middle school parents seeking insight and tips on surviving and thriving those fateful parenting years.
Before you stop reading this blog because you are not there yet or long past this phase, know that this blog is for every parent. Whether you are deep in the middle school melee, running after toddlers, or long past the daily parenting game. It is hopefully helpful for those who need it now or will need it soon and affirming for those who have long since graduated from those fateful years.
This year, my wife and I have the joy of having not one, but TWO, seventh graders residing in our personal animal kingdom called our home. Our son and niece--two weeks apart--provide us daily laughs, frustration, and a constant reminder of how challenging and fun raising early adolescents can be. As the advice I have given for years to other parents is so important in my own life right now, I thought I’d dust off some of my best advice and share it in this blog.
The following suggestions come directly from a two-part parent education series I led as a middle school principal, called Raising Teens Without Losing Your Mind.
In setting the context for why raising teens requires a specific mindset, I offer the following truths that form a helpful framework when approaching the parenting of our teens. Understanding this framework can hopefully offer some peace of mind when your teen begins to boggle your mind.
Truth #1: Teens are a Different Animal
Teens, especially early adolescents, are significantly different from babies, toddlers, children, and young adults. No duh!, right? While this may be obvious intellectually, the daily transition that happens just under the surface of our noticing belies the reality that our child is no longer a child. It can sometimes hit us like a ton of bricks. With one startling rejection or outburst, we suddenly realize that our sweet baby is gone and an alien has overtaken their brain. “What happened to my sweet Jack; he used to love cuddles with me?” “Who brain-napped Veronica and replaced her with this eye-rolling ball of angst?” To add insult to injury, research shows that modern teens start this process of physical and emotional maturation much earlier than in previous generations. There are many hypotheses for why this is occurring--food industrial complex, socialization, technology, environmental factors, to name a few. Regardless, puberty is starting earlier and adolescence lasting longer, making it even more of a challenge for parents seeking to understand the changes happening to their child.
While befuddling at times, as someone who has spent his career working with teens, I have found the best approach is to expect the unexpected…or even more accurately, expect the expected. I offer you the same advice I offer the middle school staff with whom I have worked: “Don’t be surprised when a middle school student acts like a middle school student.” Acceptance is the first step toward thriving in the teen years.
You might be wondering why teens seem like a unique species. Isn’t this the same kid I raised since birth? Glad you asked…
Truth #2: The Teen Brain is Under Major Construction
Brain research confirms what we experience at home with our teens. There are two times in a person’s life when the brain is at its most prolific change and adaptation. The first, not surprisingly, is during infancy; however, the second happens years later during adolescence. And when does the bulk of this growth and adaptation occur? During sleep! The most underdeveloped portion of the brain in an adolescent is the prefrontal cortex, sometimes referred to as the CEO of the brain. It is where, among other tasks, logical decision-making, organization, and time management are conducted. Judging from the behavior of our teens, it’s not surprising that this area of the brain is the most underdeveloped. It might also make sense to you that the part of the brain that overcompensates for the lack of prefrontal cortex development during adolescence is the amygdala--or the area where emotion is processed.
So if you have been living on an emotional roller coaster ride with your teen lately, you have their brain to thank. And if you’re not on the ride just yet, it’s likely just around the corner. When we take time to step off the parenting roller coaster and take a look from the safety of the snack bar (perspective), we can take some comfort in knowing that our child’s behavior is age appropriate and understandable.
Truth # 3: Gender Matters When Raising Teens
You may have read my first two considerations and thought to yourself, “This doesn’t totally explain my situation.” Or, “This was true for one of my children, but not (yet) for the other.” First, it is important to remember that every child is different. While generalizations can be helpful when approaching challenges you’ve never faced before and when seeking advice and perspective, they are by their nature--limiting. My first piece of advice for every parent is to: parent the kid you have. However, I don’t dismiss generalizations out of hand, either. The truth is that there are some generalizations that help us understand the most prevalent developmental trajectories; one of the most insightful of these is the differences in development based on gender.
I recognize that our understanding of gender identity is ever-evolving , so let me say that if anything I am sharing does not apply to your child or does not conform to your understanding of gender, then by all means, dismiss it out-of-hand. I don’t claim to be an expert on all things gender; I share helpful advice for the generalization in hopes that it helps the largest number of people possible. There is a great deal of research that suggests that boys’ brains and girls’ brains develop at different rates. In fact, the boy’s and girl’s brain is more different in adolescence than it is at any other time in their lives. They all get to the same destination eventually, but not all at the same time or in the same cadence. Additionally, hormonal changes during puberty are quite different in boys than they are in girls, resulting in different behavioral reactions to the biological and physical transformations.
No one gender does adolescence “better” or is “easier;” adolescence is equally challenging for most teens. I simply share this truth because it has helped hundreds of parents with whom I have worked better understand their child, especially for opposite gendered parents (moms parenting boys and dads parenting girls).
Truth #4: The World Has Changed Since You Were a Teen
The last truth I encourage parents to consider when raising teens is that the world is quite different than the one in which we parents grew up, perhaps more different than any generation before us due to the exponential change that technological advancements have brought to bear. I recognize that as I get older, it’s harder for me to say this as many more current parents are digital natives themselves. However, I trust that there are enough parents out there who have young children and teens who consider themselves, like me, to be of the “X” generation.
The reason this frame is important is obvious, but in the act of parenting, we often forget. I don’t know about you, but I shudder to think what my teenage years would be like if every thought, outfit, and embarrassing moment was potential fodder for the world to see on the internet or social media. Bullying happened at school and could be escaped when the final bell rang. I didn’t have access to endless information at the touch of a button. If I was bored, I had to go outside and find a neighbor willing to play with me. Privacy on a phone included a REALLY long cord that stretched all the way from the kitchen to the dining room where no one ever ventured except on Thanksgiving. Kids played many sports or multiple instruments through high school and few kids really “specialized” in anything. Most of us had jobs in high school--mine was working at an ice cream shop and sacking groceries; I can’t remember the last time I had a high school kid bag my groceries today. The only thing parents were concerned might rot our brains or keep us from fulfilling our life’s purpose was MTV or too much time on the Atari. Politics seemed down right polite and no matter what we did to the earth it seemed as though it would last forever. Life wasn’t perfect, and for many it was difficult; however, it was much more predictable, pedestrian even. The challenges our teens face today are much more complex than those we faced, resulting in the need for parents to be more engaged and aware of influences that they might otherwise ignore.
With this framework as a lens, I encourage parents to consider how they will approach the following areas of parenting, and a nugget of advice for each.
Rights & Expectations: Teens will rise to your level of expectations, even if they outwardly fight it. Keep your expectations high, clear, and communicated.
Health & Wellness: Sleep is the lynchpin to your kids physical, mental, and emotional health. Teens need 9.25 hours per night. Keep sleep sacred.
Routine & Ritual: With an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, a teenager’s mind can feel quite chaotic; outside routine can provide inside peace. Don’t underestimate routine’s ability to provide relief.
Boundaries & Limits: Most teens are like water, they will find the path of least resistance. All teens benefit from knowing where the healthy boundaries are and the consequences for crossing.
Rewards & Consequences: Most teens are motivated by some combination of freedom, privacy, and material possessions. Parents can use this currency to reinforce family expectations.
Most importantly, I think, amidst the journey of raising teens, don’t forget to nurture your own passions and your own identity outside of being a parent. It’s easy to lose ourselves in all that is involved in parenting. I have to remind myself sometimes that I was an interesting person before I had kids! You have an identity that has nothing to do with being a parent; that part of you is important, too. Don’t lose YOU in all this.
All these suggestions and frames are by no means exhaustive. Hopefully they serve as a starting point of conversation with your co-parent and your teen.
You might consider joining us this Thursday, September 22, for a fireside chat on gender and sexuality for the modern parent. Todays’ teens live in a world where gender identity and sexuality are understood in much more complex and fluid ways. Join me and Liberty Hebron, LPCC, from Children’s Health Council as we dive into questions and seek understanding in a safe, judgment-free zone built on curiosity. These and many more presentations are and will be available at the www.mpcsdspeakerseries.com website.
Happy parenting! Soon enough your middle school child will evolve from his/her/their current genus into a full fledged adult, at which time you can look back on these years with a sense of accomplishment, relief, humor, and pride.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.