The Pressure of Being a Teenager

Teenagers know what pressure is!

Just try it, it will be fun.  Are you really going to wear that? Hey, did you hear that Joe’s parents are out of town Saturday. OMG! We have to do that again! Do it, or I’ll tell everyone what a poser you are!  You can’t say things like that if you are going to hang out with us.

Does any of this sound familiar? We were all teenagers at one time and have heard some variation of the statements above.  When you really look, you may see that you still succumb to peer pressure at times.  Ever show up to a formal party in casual dress? Ever say something and everyone silently stares at you like you are from Mars?  Ever have someone ask you to do something that you really didn’t want to do?

The difference between you and your teenager is that you have developed some skills and strategies for navigating pressure.  Your teen is learning and needs your help. Most teens will say that they feel pressure at varying degrees every day. Teens feel pressure to fit in with their peers, please their parents, do well in school, be active, have good manners, be popular, etc.  Tumultuous as it is, it is part of growing up and something we all experience.

Pressure from parents and peers can be completely different beasts. While parents generally love their children unconditionally and truly want what’s best for them, peer groups are often unpredictable, fickle, and take on a personality of their own. At home, teens can feel pressure to perform, have manners, do chores, and generally be “good”.  With friends, teens can feel pressure to be cool and fit in. What is normal behavior in one peer group may be unacceptable in another. Sometimes, these pressures conflict as your teen tries to navigate his/her way through the teen years.

Most people talk about peer pressure as the primary way in which teens influence one another.  This is because the general definition of peer pressure is the influence that a group of peers exert on an individual within the group.  Individual behaviors are an attempt to conform to what is expected of the group as a whole. In other words, teens do what they have to do to fit in.  However, a closer look at the research reveals that there are at least 5 different ways that peers can have a positive or detrimental influence on one another.

5 Types of Peer Influence:

1.  Peer Pressure: Directly and overtly persuading others to engage in a particular behavior.

For Example:  “You can’t be seen with that guy anymore if you are going to hang out with us!”

2.  Modeling: Exhibiting or demonstrating a particular attitude or behavior for others to imitate.

For Example: “All my friends are drinking at this party. Maybe I should try some…”

3.  Opportunity: Being somewhere that provides opportunities for prosocial or antisocial behavior.

For Example: “Looks like we are all alone until your parents get home at 9:00.”

4. Reinforcement: Supporting behaviors that fit within the norms of the group.

For Example: “You look great today. I love your outfit!”

5. Aggression: Using intimidation, force, or bullying to control group norms, and enhance or maintain individual or group status.

For Example: “Give me your lunch or I’ll dunk your head in the toilet!”

As parents, we want to help our teen navigate these kinds of pressures and minimize negative influences.  So, what can you do? 

  • Expand your understanding of peer pressure: Look for ways in which peer influence could be present in your teen’s life. Teens can be exposed to different kinds of influence depending on their interests, activities, hobbies, geographic location, etc.
  • Help your teen understand the range of influences: A teen may or may not be conscious of influence.  However, knowing what it can look like can make it more noticeable when it happens.
  • Teach your teen to be prepared: Help your teen develop strategies that minimize or remove peer influence. For example, carrying a cup around at a party can reduce or remove invitations to drink.  
  • Create escape codes: Practice code words or phrases that your teen can use with you when he/she is in a bind. Make sure your teen knows that you, or another trusted adult, can provide a ride whenever one is needed.   
  • Teach your teen to trust his/her instincts: We’ve all had that pain in our gut when “something is wrong”.  Communicate that this pain is a protective mechanism that should be trusted.
  • Be the final scapegoat:  If all else fails, tell your teen to blame you. “My parents won’t let me” or “We have family plans” work great!
  • Teach your teen to think about IMPACT:  Teens are quite capable of considering the “consequences” of their actions. However, teens usually see consequences as negative, personal, and close to home. For example, a teen may be more worried about being rejected than getting caught. Talking about the “impact” of their decisions creates an open conversation that carries less judgement and more awareness of how their behavior can effect themselves and others.
  • Focus on your relationship: Lines of communication are created when you pay attention and show interest in your teen’s world.  Not only will your teen tell you more about what is going on in their life, they will be more open to your advice. Be aware that advice seeking is not always overt.  Sometimes the best guidance comes from modeling, and sharing personal experiences and stories when opportunities presents themselves.  Remember, your teen is watching and listening to you more than you may think!

Happy Parenting,

Shelly

Advertisements

What Where You Thinking?!?! Understanding the Prefrontal Cortex of the Teenage Brain

Have you ever asked your teen, “What were you thinking” and gotten the answer, “I wasn’t”  or “I don’t know.” During adolescence, the teenage brain is undergoing subtle, but dynamic changes, all in the midst of major physiological, psychological, and social transitions. Overall, theses changes lead to more sophisticated thinking skills and increases in their ability to process emotions.

The tricky part is that this development takes place during a time that is known for increased risk-taking behavior.  Because teens will try on new things to learn about themselves, it is important to help them understand how much their brain is changing and how they can take care of it during the teen years. This will help them to avoid things that can harm the brain, like substance use. It can also help them realize that they are not supposed to be able to think like an adult.  Part of a parent’s job is to create a space where their teen feels comfortable enough to ask for help .

We used to believe that the majority of development took place in the first five years of life.  Now we know that while the size of the brain does not change much after grade school, the brain matures considerably throughout adolescence and into their 20’s.   Understanding these changes for yourself can help you talk to your teen about what is going on, how the changes impact their thinking and decision-making, and how risks-taking behavior can have a negative impact on brain development.

Sagittal human brain with cortical regions del...
Image via Wikipedia

The prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex is thought to be the last area of the brain to be fully developed. This section of the brain controls much of a person’s logical thinking and decision-making.  Think of this as the CEO of the brain. It is in charge of a number of important skills like: controlling impulses, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, initiating appropriate behavior, changing behavior when situations change, organizing things, forming strategies and planning behavior, setting priorities, making decisions, showing empathy, having insight, and taking constructive feedback.

Kind of makes sense why teens can be so unpredictable, argumentative, and sensitive. It helps to explain behaviors that appear completely out of character.  I’ve heard several parents joke, “Where did my child go?” “When is he coming back?”, or “I think he’s been possessed by aliens!”  Still, all of this doesn’t mean that teens can’t make good decisions. It simply explains why teens can be smart enough to reason with their teachers and parents, formulate arguments for personal or political points of view, and build web sites, while still making poor decisions to skip school, cheat on a test, or drink and drive.

With all of these stills still developing, teens are susceptible to being impulsive, lacking plans, and making decisions without thinking through the possible consequences.  As a parent, you can:

  • Help them build these skills. Recognize that you play an important role in having teaching  your teen to stretch their thinking. Now, as much or more than any other time, they need constant conversations about life and how to handle different thoughts, feelings, and situations.
  • Help them “clean things up”, or make amends with those they have impacted when they make a mistake. Use mistakes as opportunity to talk about other ways to handle the situation.
  • Remember that you respond more intellectually to situations. Teens respond “from the gut” and need continued guidance while their brains are still developing.
  • Help them practice! Take an active role in thinking through different scenarios. Help them connect their gut feelings to the possible outcomes if they acted on them.  Teens may still have a more narrow view then of situations than you do. They need you to put small events into the larger context. You may also find it helpful to relate situations to past experiences (theirs, your own, a even a third party like a neighbor or movie character) so that it is more concrete.
  • Don’t assume your teen does things on purpose. Step back and consider that at the time, they might not have been able to respond any differently.
  • Do your best not to overreact to situations. Your teen needs to feel comfortable enough to talk to you about tough situations so that you get the opportunity to coach him/her. It is through this process that teens build pathways in the brain that will help them deal with similar situations in the future.  The brain will literally recognize, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” and will be able to pull from past experience.


Motivating Teens: Why Can’t We Just Give Them Gold Stars?

Have you ever wished you could motivate your teen by offering him a sucker or providing her with an opportunity to earn a desired toy after putting enough gold stars on the calendar? This may have worked when your child was younger, but life with a teenager is much more complicated!  In order to understand how to motivate teenagers, we have to develop a better idea of what motivation is and where it comes from.

So, what is motivation? In general, motivation is a set of reasons that affect our choice to engage and persist in a given act or behavior.  That means that motivation guides our decision-making. It guides both our initial Continue reading “Motivating Teens: Why Can’t We Just Give Them Gold Stars?”