Stephen Cowan, MD, Director of Health & Education
This is the fifth in a six-part series on the Five Phase Journey through Adolescence.
As children move further into the depths of adolescence, the changes in their bodies cause increasing concerns about personal appearance. Every pimple is a crisis of imperfection. Your child’s style of clothing and hair may begin to take on quasi-religious importance. Your teen’s “look” is an outer form of their emerging personal identity. The transition into the Gold stage drives children to develop a strong sense of justice and righteousness. “Why” questions are deeply spiritual inquiries into the rules and order of society, creating all kinds of logics of cause and effect, some of which may make absolutely no sense to you. Teens become consumed with questions like, “Why is it that one minute I’m popular and the next I’m not?” The advertising media capitalizes on this existential crisis, creating unnatural distorted ideals of self-image that can exaggerate the sense of your child’s imperfections. How can anyone live up to a photoshopped image? Some “early bloomers” hide their sexuality while others feel the urge to dress in more mature styles. This can create an inner conflict between appearance and emotional immaturity.
During this Gold stage, teenagers become more concrete in their thinking. They may have difficulty anticipating consequences and tend towards fixed mind black-and-white thinking. I once had a conversation with an adolescent specialist who had been doing an MRI study on the typical teenage male brain. An anthropologist happened to come by and asked, “Hey where did you get all the Neanderthal brains?” He noticed that the part of the prefrontal cortex that enables us to plan ahead was underdeveloped just like the brains of cavemen they had discovered.[i] When I explain to parents that they have a Neanderthal living in their house, suddenly their child’s rigid behavior makes sense. So how do you deal with a Neanderthal?
Advice to parents:
- First rule: Never tell a Neanderthal that they’re a Neanderthal! No teenager wants to be told they’re acting like teenagers. This just generates more humiliation, resentment and resistance, diminishing the chances they’ll hear anything you say.
- Second rule: repeat exactly what they say so they know you heard them. Teenagers often feel like they’re not being heard or understood. When your teenager growls, “I don’t want to do my homework!” for example, resist the temptation to use reason to explain why homework is important to their future. Instead, try repeating exactly what they said back to them: “You don’t want to do your homework, do you?” You may find this is a much more effective way of getting them to shift out of the resistant state of NO just by getting them to say the word YES. When your child first senses they’ve been heard, you have miraculously created trust and dignity that opens the door to a willingness to reconnect with you.
- Connect present feelings to how they felt in the past. Remember to use shades of feelings (see Fire stage). By comparing present feelings to some other time, they gain a wider perspective that reduces the sense of being overwhelmed. After all, we recovered from feelings before, we can have the faith to recover again.
- Practice what you preach! Your own spiritual practice can have a profound influence on your child’s life. Try creating sacred ceremonies in your life that connect you to something bigger than yourself. This will have an effect on your child even if they roll their eyes and don’t participate. Teach by example without the lectures. Work with your own energy through exercise like qi-gong, yoga and meditation to regulate metabolic functions that are key to good health. You will serve as a wonderful role model of what empowerment looks and feels like during difficult and stressful times.
[i] For a good overview of the way the brain grows and changes during development and the correlations to cognitive growth see: The Evolution of Human Brain Development Neubauer and Hublin Evol Biol (2012) 39:568–586