Cultivating Courage in Adolescence
“To be authentic, we must cultivate the courage to be imperfect — and vulnerable. We have to believe that we are fundamentally worthy of love and acceptance, just as we are. I’ve learned that there is no better way to invite more grace, gratitude and joy into our lives than by mindfully practicing authenticity” (Brown, 2015). The adolescent years are a time of significant mental development. Much of what happens in adolescence shapes our adult lives. The behaviors that feel frustrating to parents and adults are a sign that neurological transformation is in process. Often, by the time families come to see me, they are burnt out and disenfranchised. Teens are striving to understand their purpose in pursuit of their independence. They struggle to cope and connect with peers in an authentic way. They are working to conceptualize who they are as they grow and mature. They are trying to discern what and who is emotionally safe including their own mind, as they work through this time in their lives.
I recently wrote a blog about mindfulness, which you can find here. To function from an authentic self, you must first know and understand yourself. This type of self-exploration and understanding is precisely what adolescents are tasked with doing at this point in their lives to change and move forward.
Meanwhile, parents are struggling to understand how to love their kids well in this complex environment. They are tasked with building resiliency, empathy, confidence, belonging, and connection to prepare their kids for their future (Brown, 2015). It’s important that adults connect with the adolescents who are going through a complex and chaotic time of transformation if their young people are going to thrive. One imperative element for connection is when parents guide and model emotion regulation for them. Engaging and connecting conversation is a powerful tool to help prepare your teen for adulthood but must be done in a productive way.
Clients who are teenagers may feel frustrated, angry, and shut down with their parents who are equally exasperated and confused by them. Many teenagers will experience embarrassment and frustration toward their parents as their mind is developing, which is often hurtful and confusing to their caregivers. The teenager may even lash out and tell their parents they hate them, or an adolescent might state his/her caregivers are the worst parents ever. Though the teen might not fully believe this, it is an outward sign of the internal change occurring in their brain demonstrating that they want a healthy emotional distance from their parents. This distance will later help them to leave home and transition into adulthood. Parents may complain that their adolescent is consistently pushing the boundaries. In part, this is connected to the elevated levels of dopamine in their brain, as well as their need to connect and belong with their peers so that they have healthy individuation from their family of origin. The brain is restructuring and rebuilding by pruning the parts that are no longer needed (Siegel, 2015). For example, if the teenager participates in sports, this interest would need to be nurtured so it can become a specialized individual focus. If it becomes a focus, they can continue to cultivate this in the future and excel at it which helps the individual feel strong and competent as a self.
Parents have an opportunity to have reflective conversations about emotions, thoughts, and dreams with their young people. This can build a sense of emotional safety on behalf of the adolescent with his or her parents. The more teens feel seen, heard, understood, and valued by parents, the more they will be willing to be vulnerable. Part of the pull is that parents are disciplinarians and often think of the future as they work to prepare their children for adulthood. The pushback is the adolescent working to discover their individuality (Siegel, 2015). Introspective conversation allows them to develop empathy as it stimulates the part of the brain that helps them relate to others. The power of empathy and vulnerability will help teenagers find confidence in themselves (Brown, 2015). It will allow parents the opportunity to create a high-joy environment, so that when discipline must occur, the parent’s voice is more likely to be received.
In turn, as parents work to empathize with teens, deeper connections can occur. Teenagers are inundated with daily pressures that did not exist in past decades. Teens today struggle with anxiety, depression, and panic as they contend with the constant connection of social media. This can result in self-harming behaviors, suicidal ideation, trauma from violence in school, social anxiety, lack of confidence, and struggling with body image issues. Disconnection is needed for the brain to function in the way it was designed to function. Learning how to be healthy physically and mentally in an ever changing, high paced society is a balancing act.
Dan Siegel’s research urges us to address the whole person. The “upstairs brain,” which makes decisions and balances emotions, is under construction until the mid-twenties (Siegel, 2011). Especially in adolescents, the emotions of right brain tend to rule over the logic of the left brain. No wonder kids can seem and feel so out of control. By applying these discoveries to everyday parenting, parents can turn any outburst, argument, or fear into a chance to integrate a teen’s brain and foster vital growth. This can help raise calmer, happier children using twelve key strategies, including my favorite six below (Siegel, 2011):
- Name It to Tame It: Correlate right-brain behavior through left-brain storytelling, appealing to the left brain’s affinity for words and reasoning to calm emotional storms and bodily tension.
- Engage, Don’t Enrage: Keep your child thinking and listening, instead of purely reacting.
- Move It or Lose It: Use physical activities to shift your child’s emotional state.
- Let the Clouds of Emotion Roll By: Guide your children when they are stuck on a negative emotion and help them understand that feelings come and go.
- SIFT: Help children pay attention to the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts within them so that they can make better decisions and be more flexible.
- Connect Through Conflict: Use discord to encourage empathy and greater social success .
There are no perfect parents or teens. While striving to connect, grace must be given and received while setting boundaries. Oftentimes parents will blame “teenage hormones” on the conflict within the home. In reality, research tells us that this is a time of rebuilding and restructuring in the brain that affects the way a teen is thinking and perceiving. Dan Siegel (2011) states that, “consciousness permits choice and change to unfold. It is the power of being aware of what one is thinking, feeling, and how they experience it in the body.” This holds the key to empowering teens to be insightful and more empathic. Empathy does not mean agreeing with someone else, it means being compassionate to their experience in an authentic way by finding a way to understand their pain.
Parenting is complex and so are the adolescent years. One imperative element for connection is when parents guide and model emotion regulation for their teen. Engaging and connecting conversation is a powerful tool to help prepare teens for adulthood but must be done in a productive way. Dan Siegel’s research urges us to address the whole person. The “upstairs brain,” which makes decisions and balances emotions, is under construction until the mid-twenties (Siegel, 2011). Cultivating a family/group identity and providing a space for teens to believe they will receive support and space as they build their individual identity is a key factor. Parents can train their brains to be empathetic, leading by example. By building connections with teens, parents can impact their brains to trust they are a safe landing pad where the teen will receive empathy. As adolescents build from a sense of connecting and belonging, their self confidence will expand. When adolescents feel safe and confident, they will be more vulnerable. Parents in their adult brains can grow as can adolescents from mindfulness habits. In summary, this is great news! As parents of adolescents, there is hope for an enriched emotional connection.
- Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
- Siegel, D. J. (2015). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. Penguin.
- Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Delacorte Press.