Parenting is ever-changing. Once you’ve got the hang of breastfeeding, you’ll be dealing with potty training. Then, before you know it, your little one isn’t so little anymore, and you now have a tween or teenager — and puberty! This stage often comes with angst, and they seem to be annoyed and offended by anything parents do. And the parents think they now have children who are rude to them! How do you remain positive about handling a child who’s going through adolescence?
One mom posted the question on Quora, asking for advice. “How do I tell my wonderful 11-year-old son (in a way that won’t tear him down) that the way he has started talking to me (disrespectfully) makes me not want to be around him (I’ve already told him the bad attitude is unacceptable)?”
Fantasy writer and mom of two Jo Eberhardt from Australia responded by sharing a conversation she and her 11-and-a-half-year-old son. Jo touched on puberty, conflicting emotions, and unprecedented outbursts by explaining to her tween son how his brain works during this stage of his life.
Jo said she began the talk by admitting that she “really messed up” because she and her son talked about physical changes that puberty brings, but not how it changes a person’s brain. That prompted her son, who accepted her apology, to ask the following questions:
“Why is my brain changing?”
During puberty, it’s not just the body that’s transitioning into adulthood, “your brain has to be completely rewritten from a child’s brain to an adult’s brain,” Jo answered. “It takes a lot of energy to completely rewrite a brain,” which, she suggests, is the reason her son is less patient, gets cranky and tired faster. “That must be really frustrating for you,” she told her son.
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“Sometimes I just feel really angry, and I don’t know why.”
Jo told her son that it’s because the first part of his brain that gets bigger is the amygdala, which controls the emotions and his fight-flight-freeze survival instincts. Her son has to tell his brain “there’s no sabretooth tiger” to help him calm down. “All of a sudden, you’ve got an adult-sized amygdala hitting all your emotion buttons and your sabre-tooth tiger buttons,” Jo explained.
“Sometimes, I don’t know why I say the things I do. They just come out, and then I feel bad.”
Jo explained it’s because the last part of the brain that gets rewritten is the frontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and understanding consequences. “You’ve got this powerful adult amygdala hitting you with massive emotions, but you’ve still got a fuzzy child frontal cortex that can’t make decisions or understand consequences as quickly as the amygdala wants you to,” Jo described.
“So it’s not my fault?”
“No, it’s puberty’s fault your brain works the way it does,” Jo replied to her son, adding, however, that it doesn’t mean he is off the hook. She stressed it’s still his responsibility to recognize what’s going on and change his actions, which is not easy but very doable.
“Your feelings are your feelings, and they’re always okay. But you get to choose your actions. You get to choose what you do with your feelings,” she said.
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“And, when you make a mistake, you get to choose to apologize for that mistake and make amends. That’s how you prove that you’re becoming an adult,” Jo added.
Jo then started explaining puberty from her perspective: “I’m not in your head, but I can only imagine that it’s a mess of confusion and chaos, and you don’t know from one minute to the next how you feel about things,” she said.
If her son is confused about his feelings and actions, then it’s more confusing for her since she only sees what her son does and has no access to his thoughts. Jo is saying she probably would make a lot of mistakes in dealing with his behavior.
Jo asked her son a favor, which is to keep telling her what’s going on in his head. “The more we talk, the easier it will be for both of us to get through this puberty thing unscathed.”
Jo admitted their talk didn’t completely prevent her son from speaking disrespectfully but neither did it stop her from her treating her son like a little boy, which he is not anymore.
“But it opened the lines of communication. It gave us a language to use.”