There is a stage of parenting that no one warned me about. As with any other stage of parenting, it is full of challenges and pitfalls, but, to me, this stage is by far the trickiest to date.
You have a baby. You take care of the baby. The baby grows into a toddler, then a little kid, then a big kid. Each of these stages seems to birth a more expressive, somewhat larger version of your original child. Children shed a layer and reveal a slightly more advanced version of themselves. With each new version, they can do more, say more, engage more, understand more. Though we miss the past versions of our children, the newer versions are quite enjoyable in ways the older ones weren’t. Yes, it’s sweet to hold an infant. But look at how fun it is to play with a giggling toddler. And it is even more fun to color with a four-year-old who can tell you all about the magical creatures in her imagination. And then even more fun to see her write her name and learn to read and get her own cereal and tie her own shoes.
Everything is going great. You are beaming at the growth you are watching unfold before your eyes. And then, adolescence hits, and with it comes The Fog.
If you don’t yet have adolescent children, I am here to let you in on a hard truth. Your children as you know them are about to disappear way down a dark hole and not crawl back out for several years. But, on my honor, I promise they will return.
Here’s what happens, scientifically speaking. The two halves of the pre-frontal cortex of the adolescent brain are literally not connected. When the pre-frontal cortex is connected correctly (as it is in adults) we are able to think rationally, weigh long term consequences of actions, and assess risk. Adolescents cannot do this well because the two sides of the front of their brain are not connected.
Imagine the power cord for your phone has been severed and is only connected by a tiny little wire. Not much charging up is going to happen. You need the cord to be fully intact in order for the phone to charge correctly. This is not unlike the adolescent’s brain. The front of their brain is not hard-wired together, and therefore it cannot fully function.
At the same time, the limbic system of the adolescent brain (the part that perceives pleasure, welcomes risk, and navigates emotions) is the largest it will ever be in their life. The dopamine is flowing and everything feels epic and amazing! As a result, adolescents are highly motivated by pleasure and immediate consequences, whether physical, social, or emotional. Long-term consequences bear very little weight. When they do experience pleasure or acceptance, their surge of dopamine is higher than it was as a child, and higher than it will be later in life. This flood of dopamine can be a powerful tool for good, or as you can imagine, bring with it life-altering consequences.
If you put two and two together, the reason teenagers engage in risky behavior is because they are highly motivated by pleasure, but lack the brain function to weigh the long-term consequences of their decisions.
The ability to make wise choices or appreciate long term consequences of decisions DOES NOT EXIST for them biologically. It’s not that teenagers are irresponsible or unwise. They lack the anatomy in their brain to make the connections necessary to look at a situation and think, “This may end poorly for me or negatively affect my future.” They are motivated by pleasure without a mechanism in place to tap the brakes when anything pleasurable might also bring a round of negative consequences.
Which brings me to my point.
What does an adolescent need, given that they are motivated by pleasure yet lack the brain function to weigh consequences? The answer is simple. Adolescents need parents.
This need for parents isn’t emotional (although all children need emotional connections with their parents). It is biological. They biologically need help navigating life during the years when vital parts of their brain are not yet connected. AND YET, when do most parents start to take a hands-off approach with their children, leaving them to their own devices? During adolescence.
The double-edged sword nature of this situation, and quite frankly, what makes it so darn difficult to parent teenagers, is the fact that every day they look more and more like an adult. They grow taller, curvier, hairier, and take up the same amount of space as an adult. They eat like an adult. They wear adult-sized clothing. They talk like adults. Yet, they are not quite adults when it comes to their brain function. They are in the tricky middle between childhood and adulthood, and they still desperately need parents who love them enough to stand in the gap while their brain continues to grow and develop.
They don’t need you to back down and leave them alone. They need you to step in and think long-term for them when they can’t. This isn’t something they will ask for, and they certainly will not welcome your input or perspective most of the time, but this is when it is helpful to remember parenting isn’t about putting your child in charge. Parenting is about being the adult they need, for their long-term benefit, when they need it.
Your adolescent children need your wisdom and experience to look at a situation (with your fully functioning frontal cortex) and determine whether it is unwise or too risky. They need you to weigh the consequences of a situation for them and hold them to a standard and expectation of excellence even when they cannot understand why. Yes, they will buck hard, argue passionately, stomp their feet, slam their door, roll their eyes, and cry themselves to sleep. And in the end, you cannot control them. They may end up finding a way around you, but you can choose to lean in and parent them to the best of your ability. They need you to be the parent, especially when it isn’t easy.
Here’s the good news. The Fog does not last forever. While it does take the frontal cortex a long time to fully develop (all the way into the mid-twenties), your child will come out of The Fog and begin to be recognizable to you again after a few years. And when they do, you will still play an active role in their life and parent them, but you will start to see evidence of the connections that are being formed in their brain, and the power cord that was hanging on by a thread will start to fuse together and get stronger and stronger. The deep, dark fog is replaced by the light of youth and inexperience, and instead of a lost creature occupying the body of your child, you begin to see the young adult version of your son or daughter, and that is really sweet and special.
If you have a child in The Fog currently, hang in there. It is not for the faint of heart, and you will need strong emotional support along the way. We have three stages of The Fog happening in our home currently. We have one who has come out of it, one who is fully submerged in it, and one who is in only about ankle-deep. My advice is to be consistent, yet respectful. Be the adult, not their peer. Be the brain in the situation until the day when they finally have one of their own.
If you would like to read more information on this subject, I am linking to the resources I used for researching this post. I highly recommend listening to the episode of Think.
I would love to hear your experiences with The Fog and how you have handled it with your own children.
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