Your kid is sneaking out so you give them a stricter curfew. Your kid is drinking so you tell them they can’t hang out with certain friends. Your teen is always with their romantic partner so you put limits around how much they can be around them. Your teen uses cuss words so you get out a penalty jar that the family pays into anytime someone cusses.
How’s all that been working for you? Not getting the results you want? I’m not entirely surprised.
Now, I’m never going to shame parents for setting healthy boundaries and limits for their kids and high schoolers. We need to do this as adults. The human brain can’t regulate its own dopamine until around the ages of 21 and 25. So young people rely on the adults in their lives to set healthy boundaries and limits for them.
The science behind this is a process called myelination. Myelination is the process of the brain insulating its electrical wiring. Myelin is the insulating casing (called the myelin sheaths) around neurons which operate on electrical impulses called action potentials.
(P.S. I’m recalling this info from memory from my undergrad (which people say isn’t important anymore. Clearly, I would beg to differ #micdrop)).
Most myelination occurs when we are infants but the brain doesn’t fully myelinate until 20 to 25 years of age like I mentioned before. The last thing to “turn on” in the human brain (as in become fully insulated to fire at full speed so to speak) is the frontal lobes which is the primary part of the brain used in executive decision making.
Interestingly, this process can also cause some mild psychosis in some teenagers around age 18 which can cause some mild sensory hallucinations that they often just grow out of (i.e hearing footsteps that aren’t actually there or seeing weird shadowy figures where there aren’t any). This is called prodrome and while many tends grow out of it, some may develop schizophrenia. However, schizophrenia is rare, doesn’t make that person a monster, and can be managed with medication and therapy. If your teen mentions any hallucinations, seek psychiatric care as soon as possible to properly care for your teen’s developing brain.
The Brain on Adolescence
Guess what part of the brain is fully myelinated by the teenage years? The nucleus accumbens! This is the part of the brain that is responsible for rewarding pleasurable experiences such as eating, engaging in fun activities like hobbies, and sex. Hilariously, it’s not much bigger than the size of a pea (which shows how strongly humans respond to pleasure (which is why reward is stronger for reinforcing good behaviors than punishment. Just in case you’re wondering)).
Is adolescence starting to make more sense now?
The nucleus accumbens and the frontal lobes then engage in something of a dopamine war with each other. Whichever part of the brain is given more dopamine is the part of the brain that will somewhat take over. Imagine the proverbial devil (nucleus accumbens) and angel (frontal lobes) on your shoulders.
For example, when considering writing this blog post, I think I could actually feel my frontal lobes and my nucleus accumbens fighting over dopamine.
I had a cancellation, so I had some extra free time. My brain then had 2 ideas. I could either screw around on Facebook (nucleus accumbens) or write this blog (frontal lobes) which is good for my private practice development. Clearly, my frontal lobes won that one (because, yes, despite my appearance, I am much older than 21 years of age and can thus engage my frontal lobe processes much more easily than when I actually was that age).
So is your boundary setting as a parent bad? Absolutely not. Your teen needs it for healthy neural and psychological development.
The Other Side of Supporting your Teen
I’ve noticed a lot of parents end up going to the far end of the spectrum with their teens’ behaviors and can become hyper-change focused.
I’m going to suggest something using the principles of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). A dialectic is a spectrum with two opposing ideas. The goal of DBT and all dialectics is to find the balance between said opposing ideas so we can gain the benefits from both sides.
Sometimes, the goal is not focusing on changing your kid’s behaviors.
I often get the reflection from my friends and acquaintances that my job must be difficult because sometimes people just never change no matter how much you hem and haw at them. I frequently remind that this is a false perception of what happens in therapy because it’s not always about change.
The most important dialectic in DBT is the change-validation dialectic.
The idea here is that we cannot be completely focused on just change or just validation. We need both. So if you are a parent and you find yourself hyper-focused on the change side of this dialectic, consider that you may not see the change you want because you might be neglecting the essential side of validation which is oftentimes just sitting with your kid and telling them they have every right to feel the way they do because we cannot control our emotions.
Don’t forget, young people crave the nonjudgmental presence of their parents. Nonjudgmental presence communicates unconditional love.
This is just as important to young person neural and psychological development as setting healthy boundaries and limits!!
Don’t forget that even if your teen is cutting, self-harming in any way, struggling with addiction, making out too much with their romantic partner, sneaking out at night, on their phone too much, whatever it is, you need to spend time with them where you don’t talk about their problems for once. Just love them because nobody is perfect and neither are you or your kids and that is more than okay.
One way you can do this is to spend mutual time doing stuff you both love. Some examples:
-Go out to lunch together and ask that phones (yours too) be put away and you just catch up
-Go for a walk
-Play a sport together and get ice cream after
-Walk to get ice cream or coffee/tea
-Play video games together (good bonding time but maybe not good conversation time. It could lead to good conversation time after though)
-Do a craft or make something together. Maybe learn a new craft together and take a shared class (like go to a local communal woodshop together or take a painting class. No, I don’t care if you have zero artistic talent. My mother didn’t either but she indulged my artistic stuff with me many times and I loved every minute of it as a kid and will not ever forget those memories)
-Go to a museum together
-Go to the zoo together (lots of walking and talking time with something to distract you both if you ever feel awkward)
-Cook together (maybe learn a new recipe together. Something they really liked at a restaurant and would like to try to make at home. Who cares how it turns out?)
These activities are just as important as talking about their problems and setting boundaries for them. Please do not neglect this side of the change-validation dialectic. Just spending time together doing what seems like nothing is just as important as actively trying to make healthy change. I promise you.
Sometimes, acting out is their cry for your presence in their lives and might be even more important than boundary setting.
Sometimes, it’s not about what you do. It’s about just being together and that can seem like a whole lot of “nothing.” But I promise you, it’s just as important.
If this is something you struggle with, I encourage you to consider getting your own counseling. There is a strong chance that the reason you struggle with this is because you didn’t receive enough of this presence with your own parents.
As always, I hope this was helpful and at least thought provoking. As always, feel free to give me a call with any questions or seek mental health counseling with a licensed professional!
(P.S. Yes, I realize my post’s title was a bit of a trick question title. Sorry not sorry)