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Experiencing Teen Drama Overload? Blame Biology

Back in the days of authoritarian parenting in the '50s, obedience and propriety were high values. Digressions from good manners, respect and good behavior were often met with punishment. But then in the '60s and '70s, things changed. Parents wanted higher self-esteem for their kids and closer relationships with them. Fear-based, power-coercive relationships went the way of the rod in classrooms.

So it's no wonder that today's teens feel much more free to act out than their predecessors ever hoped. And they do. Just ask any parent of a teenager, who will likely complain about rudeness, ill manners, constant criticism and even being yelled at by their teenager.

But over the past decade, researchers have found it's not just a case of raging hormones. Teens may actually not be able to help engaging in questionable behavior. And their reactions may be, in large part, due to dramatic changes in their rapidly developing brains.

Taryn Cregon And Zoe

Take the relationship between Taryn Cregon, a single parent who lives in Mays Landing, N.J., and her 13-year-old daughter, Zoe.

"I still have, on some days, a wonderful relationship with my daughter," Cregon says. "But it goes from this really back-and-forth, loving relationship to almost seeming like that person looks at you like you're enemy No. 1. All the time. You know, it's really tough."

It's particularly poignant, Cregon says, since she and Zoe used to be so close, enjoying camping together and going to theaters and museums. Now, Zoe wants to be with her friends all the time, complains about family outings, and often starts arguments in the mornings before camp or school.

"She's really a beautiful person," says Cregon. "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 uncle, her aunt, my mom. It's just me!"

In one incident, Cregon was getting ready for work and Zoe was getting ready for camp when, suddenly, Cregon heard hair-spraying in the living room. She'd recently bought a new couch and feared Zoe had spritzed it with hair chemicals. An argument ensued, and Cregon was left dumbfounded, wondering how her daughter could be so irresponsible and thoughtless -- and then argue when called on it.

The dilemma is pretty typical, according to psychologist Laura Kastner, who along with Jennifer Wyatt wrote a recent book, Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens. For more than 30 years, Kastner has helped parents and children work toward greater calm in the home. In the hair-spray incident, both mother and daughter got tangled up in what Kastner describes as emotional flooding.

"When we flood, we are having neurons fire in this emotional part of the brain," says Kastner.

It's the fright-flight-freeze cycle. Heart rates increase, cognition gets distorted and people often think in simple black-and-white terms.

"I'm good. You're bad," says Kastner. "And they're both doing that at the same time." Kastner describes it as the worst time in any intimate relationship.

It's All In The Brain

Over the past decade, researchers have found it's not just a case of raging hormones. Teens may actually not be able to help their reactions due to dramatic changes in their rapidly developing brains.

James Chattra -- a pediatrician practicing in Redmond, Wash. -- says that at about age 12, the brain begins a massive shift in the prefrontal cortex, or the "thinking" part of the brain.

"It's going through this amazing pruning and rewiring and shift. But because of that, sometimes the prefrontal cortex that allows us to take a break, stop and think, is not working as well," Chattra says.

About half of the "thinking" neurons in certain regions of the brain, Chattra says, are literally "wiped out."

So in light of this biological reality, what can parents do? Laura Kastner has some answers: For starters, parents have to understand the massive brain change that's occurring with their teenager -- even in situations more dire and dangerous than hair spray.

Staying Cool

Here's a typical scenario, Kastner says: 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, 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.

"Sometimes, parents say, 'What were you thinking?' " says Kastner. "And the joke's on us. They weren't thinking. 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."

In situations like this, Kastner says the first line of defense for parents is to stay calm. Tell the teen to just go to bed and that you will deal with consequences tomorrow. Ask them to write a note of self-reflection -- about their regrets, why they went off track, what they would do differently if given another chance, and what skills they might need to avoid the situation in the first place.

Kastner suggests even writing a letter of apology to the host family, the family that got shaving-creamed, and maybe even the police officer who wasted his time responding to the incident. Based on the quality of this self-critique, Kastner says, parents can then determine discipline or consequences.

"It will be small, medium or large, based on the quality" of the self-critique and how much the parents believe their children learned from the mistake, she says. Parents might even have the teenager suggest their own discipline. And there's an added benefit to the teens' writing. It engages the "thinking" part of the brain, and gets the teenager away from the emotional frenzy of the night.

Emotional Regulation And Parents

Steering clear of emotions is difficult, even for adults. But Kastner says it's something parents just have to learn how to do. There are some obvious tools: Step outside for a moment. Take a breath. Think mindfulness or Zen.

Pediatrician James Chattra says Kastner's advice is right on target.

"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," he says. "So the key to her is that she brings good science, good research to the old art of parenting."

And forget having the last word, she says.

"Let them have the last word," Kastner says about the kids.

A lot of parents may feel they don't want their kids to think they can get away with something. Parents might be right, she says. But is that strategy effective?

"A lot of extended arguments that happen with children are happening because we take the bait," Kastner says.

Parents respond to attacks, get angry when called names and end up co-miserable with their kids who are already generally irritated that their parents are the boss anyway.

"We need to let that riffraff go," she says, "and cease-and-desist because it's going nowhere."

Kastner likens such a cease-and-desist reaction to the protocol exercised by police, firefighters and pilots: Don't think. Just follow protocol, which is -- first and foremost -- cool down. She says, "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."

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Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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