As a father of four with ages ranging from 21 to 31, I can tell you that raising kids (especially from the teen years to the early twenties) is often incredibly difficult and painful. Often, you feel like you are losing your mind. When a child acts out, or even worse, when they do something crazy or disastrous, it is easy to say to ourself, I am a terrible failure at the most important job that I will ever have.
Let us stop right here with an important principle of parenting.
When it comes to raising kids, it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish!
We should never judge our effectiveness as parents too early in our kids’ upbringing.
As a scientist who spends my days trying to provide structure to the mysteries of the universe, not understanding my own children was particularly troubling. It seemed some days they loved me, other days they hated me. Some days they were happy, other days they were upset and angry. Some days they were motivated, other days they were lazy. Some days they were angels, other days they were, well, you get the point. The constant flux of emotions and drama was an extraordinarily difficult task to manage, much less make sense of.
So I quit trying! Why?… Neuroplasticity! That’s right, my understanding of neuroplasticity was the one thing that helped me most to understand my kids.
You see, my frustration at their erratic behavior shifted only when I began to understand human brain development. The developing brain of a child/teenager undergoes an almost infinite number of wiring rearrangements, and that rewiring occurs in a very short period of time. If that were not enough, this nerve wiring is constantly being pruned only to start again.
So if they appear crazy at times…they are!
Specifically, as humans progress through their twenties, much of brain activity moves from back and mid regions (unconscious) to front regions (conscious) of the brain. What that means is during later development, our kids’ brains are less driven by thoughtless emotions and reactions.
The human brain is fully developed around the age of 25.
So what is our job? Perhaps the most important thing I had to eventually understand was that while I would always love my children unconditionally, I could accept only certain behaviors.
I call this unconditional love, conditional acceptance
By setting limits and at the same time teaching my children how to love others, I as a parent was playing a critical role in the wiring and rewiring process that would eventual determine their brain structure as adults.
Even under the best of circumstances, teenagers will have difficulty understanding expectations and risks, managing emotions, and handling relationships. The biology and psychology of raising kids is a messy business. To survive, we must understand why or we will drive ourselves crazy wondering what we are doing wrong and how we can be better parents.
But here is the most critical point to stress to my fellow parents out there…
We can either join our kids on the roller coaster or chose not to ride! I encourage you not to ride your child’s or teenager’s emotions and reactions. If you fuse your emotions with theirs, you both will live in a world of constant chaos and anxiety.
Trust me, it is much easier to be a loving coach from the sidelines than to be a co-participant in the middle of child/teenage CRAZINESS!