Mother and son sat on the stage of the George Mason Founder’s Hall auditorium last Saturday, and talked as though they were in their kitchen at home. Kate McCauley and David Balick were discussing those dangerous years between 6th and 12th grade, when teens may exercise poor judgement and parents may overreact, or not react enough.
Balick got through those years and is now at Fordham University in New York, but he gave credit to a “very mean mother,” as he smiled at her across the stage.
The two were part of a session on the teen brain, held for parents at the Arlington All In! Conference March 12. The event was sponsored by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth, and Families, whose Chair is Devanshi Patel. Arlington County, Arlington Public Schools, George Mason University, Second Chance, Connected 4 Safety, Core for a Change, Pave, the Ready Coalition, and the Teen Network Board were just some of the local organizations who helped support the event.
McCauley, who founded the Center for Parents and Teens, talked about several key aspects of a teen’s development: social engagement, where children are learning to be independent and build lifetime friendships.
“If they pick bad friends, let them do it now, while the parents are there to guide them,” she said. “Strike a balance between interfering and not interfering.”
Since kids start getting their advice from friends who are considerably less experienced than adults, the parent has to stay relevant. Parents shouldn’t close things off by being too hard on their kids. But checking up on them? You bet.
She was the mom who always called, always checked to see if parents were in the house during a party. Eventually, her son David called her on it: if you keep calling, he said, “there will be things I can’t do.” She relented, but only because he had demonstrated up until that time that he was trustworthy. She also threw in a consequence if he used poor judgement: “I’ve taught you to stay away from situations where people are breaking the law. If you ever get arrested, I will hire the best lawyer in town to get you out of jail, the most expensive attorney money can buy: and you will spend the next few years paying the bill.”
Balick said, “One of the biggest things for me and my brother was not to disappoint our mother.” It was really important for him to have her trust.
McCauley also gave her kids tools. They had a code, so that if they got into a situation where they thought things might go in a bad direction but weren’t sure how to extricate themselves, they could call her and ask, “Hey, how is grandma?” That would be her cue to tell her son to come home right away. He wouldn’t lose face that way. She also specialized in being the meanest mom: that made it possible for him to tell people who were pressuring him: “sorry, can’t do it, my mom won’t let me.” McCauley stresses that parents can’t be friends with their kids at this stage: they have to parent. “You only get one mom; you get plenty of friends.”
McCauley said an important element of the teen’s brain is their emotional spark and intensity; they are moody and every experience, good or bad, seems very important. Her son cautioned parents to respect the intensity of the teen’s feelings. They might be moody or sad, but don’t tell them to snap out of it and demand they cheer up. It’s not their choice to be upset, it’s an important part of their emotional growth. “We are learning who we are.”
Novelty seeking is a normal part of teen brain development, McCauley said. But when a kid does mess up, she said, “How you say things, as a parent, is important. How we model our communications is important. See what your teen thinks about what happened. Ask: ‘What would you do differently next time?’”
Keeping the channels open is important: McCauley urged parents to take advantage of times when you aren’t face to face, but side by side. Drives in the car and walking the dog can be good times to raise topics. Or just say, “Hey, come fold the laundry with me.”
McCauley cautions that not all those times should be for serious talk. Sometimes you should keep it light. Talk March Madness, or theatre, something neutral. That way your teen will expect an easy conversation and not dread being asked to take a walk.
And Balick made it clear he thought his mother was there to spell out what would happen if he did not toe the line. “All I cared about were the consequences. I just wanted to make decisions knowing what would happen if I did something.”
He says he still thinks that way. But a big consequence was not losing her trust. After an incident in eighth grade, when she said she couldn't trust him, it devastated him. McCauley did spell out the consequences: if her son used the car to drive friends after dark, it was clear what would happen to his privileges and she would not be driving him places. It’s important to remember that kids this age test the limits a lot because “they are essentially pushing on parents to see if we will still be there when they need us to be,” she underlined.
McCauley touched on the science behind the teen brain: she cited a TED talk by neurologist Frances Jensen of Harvard, which explains the synaptic plasticity of the teen brain and the fact that stress has a greater impact on the teen brain than it does on the adult brain. Likewise, drugs and alcohol teach the brain to go in directions we don’t want it to go, and teen brains are more likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol faster and more durably.
In addition, the frontal lobes of teens, where judgement and empathy are developed, are the last parts of the brain to enjoy connectivity with other parts, hence the lack of impulse control in teens. It is even more difficult for teens to engage in decision-making when they are under pressure or strong stimuli: that “hot cognition” of getting handed a marijuana joint and being asked to take a drag, is even harder to handle than it would be for a kid of say, 20.
McCauley closed with two thoughts that parents often hear, but do not always incorporate: “First,” she said, “when your kid does something really odd or immature, don’t yell and ask them what they were thinking.” And second, “Teens can’t read our minds,” she said. “We have to tell them we love them.”
AT LUNCH, parents and teens met together to hear three Arlingtonians talk about growing up in Arlington County and what lessons they learned.
Eric Green, who teaches at Abingdon Elementary School, talked about growing up in Arlington when it was still segregated. He learned to love music thanks to his music teacher, Dr. Baxter. He ended up going to Morehouse College because of their music program, where he was classmates with Spike Lee.
Tony Bentley, who coaches basketball at Wakefield, also grew up in a segregated Arlington. Four of his friends asked him if he wanted to pool his money so they could buy some drugs and sell them, making some extra cash. He and his best friend did not go down that road, and later, they were happy they hadn’t because their friends looked worn out by the time they were in their 40s, had all gone to jail, one was still in jail, one had died, and the other was addicted. He stressed the importance of choosing the right friends and taking responsibility for your choices. Bentley now runs a basketball camp at Wakefield every summer because he could never afford basketball camp when he was a kid. “Always make the right choices”, he told the crowd, “but always do your best to learn from the wrong choices.”
Chummy Gill relayed a story of immigrating to Arlington. She was born in Guyana, South America. In Guyana, kids played soccer and cricket. She sang and danced. But in Arlington, when she went to the Gunston Recreation Center to make friends, they all played basketball. It was hard to make friends without that skill, so she learned how to play the game, and got pretty good. She made friends. Tony Bentley was one of them.
She moved to California with her family, and used her new basketball skills to make friends there. “It was amazing how playing a sport brought people into my life,” she said. She wanted to go to Wakefield High School more than anything, to rejoin her old friends from Oak Ridge and Gunston. So she did, and again, basketball opened doors for her. She had several basketball scholarship offers, and she was able to play for her national team in Guyana, and travelled the world with them.
But Arlington was where she felt the love, and Gunston Community Center was one of the biggest influences in her life. Her first job was at Gunston. She had to sit at a desk, which she hated, but her boss said: “Stick it out at the desk, and after work, you can come into the gym and shoot hoops with me.”
So Gill came back to Arlington to work at Yorktown High School, and then started camps in Arlington, now her own company, called Momentum-3. Her advice to children? Have fun, be safe, and respect others.
AFTER LUNCH, the crowd was divided into parents in one room, and teens in the other. Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, provided tips on how to recognize and handle stress on the part of teens.
She said Arlington kids are stressed because they think Ivy League schools are important and grades are crucial. They lay that on top of normal teen stress and start to combust.
There are several anxiety-based disorders teens can get help for, like generalized anxiety disorder and social phobias. Some people go 10 or more years before they ask for help for anxiety disorders, because they are afraid to ask for help. Parents may see some classic signs of anxiety disorders: teens picking at themselves, pulling their hair, wearing all black, cutting, wearing long sleeves even in hot weather.
Noble stressed, “These are all treatable.” Noble also said parents can help: by talking with teens regularly, and really listening, and by taking good care of themselves, modeling stress reduction for teens. Anxiety often runs in the family, and they way parents handle it will affect how children handle it.
Noble recommended an app like “Headspace” or “Nature’s Space,” to calm down, and exercise as a way to alleviate stress. She also recommended Dr. Ron Rapee, for psychological help, and group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for teens. Whatever you do, she said, don’t ignore a stressed out teen. Teens are experiencing much higher stress than previous generations. The impacts are many: social and emotional difficulties, behavior problems, depression, and poor school performance can be caused by untreated anxiety or too much stress.
THE FINAL SESSION of the day brought teens and parents together and was designed to give attendees useful tools: even people like Russell Simmons, the Beastie Boys, and Hugh Jackman meditate, the presenters said, as they offered tools to engage more mindfully.
Jon Kabat-Zinn calls mindfulness “paying attention in a particular way,” or “bearing witness to one’s own experience.” Yoga, Tai Chi, body scans, breathing exercises, and meditation can also help teens pay attention to the events occurring within their mind and body, and the benefits are many, according to Noble. “You can reduce stress anywhere, in the car or in the bus; you can focus on one activity and be in the moment, control stress and anger, control impulses, and reflect at a critical life stage.”
Parents and teens sat in the auditorium and closed their eyes, listened to one of the daily meditations, and breathed: you could almost hear the tension disappear.
Kate McCauley and David Balick had advice for parents of teens:
- Need to talk about consequences in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade; don’t wait for high school.
- Learn to empathize ... tell your child: “yeah, that sucks, so now what can we do about it?”
- Teach your kid to make decisions responsibly by giving them the tools to analyze the pros and cons.
- Make time.
- Listen without judgement.
- Acknowledge feelings.
- Praise with positive judgement.
- Support with boundaries and expectations.
- Ask a lot of questions: “So what were you thinking when that happened?” — rather than judging.
- Praise teens for what they are doing, not who they are. “I really like how you did that, or how you said that.”
If your teen says:
- “You don't trust me.” He is saying: “I want freedom to do things I'm not ready to do yet; you are setting limits I don't want to set myself.”
- “You're embarrassing me.” You are: so try not to.
- “None of the other parents do that.” Chances are they do. Unless you know they don’t, because you’ve checked, keeping doing it. And if that doesn’t work, just say “I don't care what other parents do.”
- “Whatever” means the conversation is over.
- “I don't care.” He means:“ I am angry, but I do care.”
- “My teacher hates me.” Teens are not good at reading social cues; the narcissism in the teen brain often leads them to think a teacher is taking it out on them. To respond, remind them there will be bosses like that.
- “I hate you.” It’s just like the terrible 2s. Response? “That's fine, I have enough love for both of us.”
What causes stress in teens?
- Over scheduling
- Belief in effortless perfection
- Peer pressure
- Low self esteem
- Body image
- Racial identity
- Death of a loved one
Conference materials are all available at www.ACPYF.org
The following additional resources were cited: