Last week’s Parade magazine feature article summarized some of the scientific findings about adolescent brain development. None of it was news to me, but I work in developmental psychology and read lots of research articles; I thought it was a pretty good article for typical mainstream readers. But this part got me steamed:
The phone rang at 2 a.m. Steven Weinreb, a physician in Hartford, Conn., answered, his heart pounding. It was two years ago, and his 18-year-old son, Jeff, was coming back from one of his band’s concerts. What was wrong? Car accident? Drug overdose? “Dad, we’re in New Jersey. We’re lost. I think we’ve crossed the river twice. What do I do?” Jeff said.
“This is a boy who had it together enough to book dates for his own band; he had a GPS in his car; he had maps; he could ask at a gas station,” Weinreb says. “Instead, he called me at two in the morning and practically gave me a heart attack.”
Gee. It’s like he thought you were his parent or something. Like he trusted you to know the right thing to do in a difficult situation. Like he trusted you to help when he needed you. Wherever could he have gotten that idea?
So many people seem to think that once teenagers have adult-looking bodies, they ought to become fully competent adults immediately and stop asking their parents to do anything for them. For example, when I suggest that America increase the legal driving age (because drivers under 18 cause a lot more fatal accidents than older drivers), the first thing most people say is that teenagers have to get to their jobs and sports and stuff and of course their parents shouldn’t be bothered to take them.
My own parents were not like that. They gave me more responsibilities and independence at an early age than most of my peers had, and then they increased gradually so that by the time I was 16, I could do most household chores unassisted, manage money wisely, navigate, assemble an appliance, etc. . . but I continued to spend a lot of time talking with my parents, seek and receive their advice on many things, and turn to them in a crisis. Sometimes I walked long distances to my activities, but when they drove me it was an opportunity for conversation and for them to be more connected to what I was doing.
Meanwhile, I watched many of my friends being pushed away by their parents, who seemed unaware of what they were doing:
- “You have a basketball game tonight? Drive yourself there and pay for the gas–I’m busy.”
- “Get out of the family room and watch the TV in your room. I don’t care why you like that show.”
- “You want to know about birth control? Eww, I don’t even want to think about you ever having sex!”
- “What will clear up your skin? Go ask at the drugstore.”
And then they wondered why their teenagers never told them much of anything!
Of course, there were many times in my adolescence when my parents and I clashed over various issues, but I don’t think they ever acted as if I was wrong and stupid and annoying for asking them to help me solve a real problem. Just after I turned 18, my parents went away for a few days to help my grandmother while I started my summer job, and the night before my first day of work I got very sick (turned out to be mononucleosis) and wanted reassurance that it would be okay for me to call off work and that I wouldn’t die before I could make a doctor’s appointment . . . so I called my parents at about 5 a.m. and they didn’t say one word about my waking them “just” for that! In fact, although I did drive myself to the doctor, before my appointment was over my mama was there with me.
Occasionally being awakened by your child’s needs is just part of the job. Even when your child is as big as you are, he or she is really only very small when it comes to handling a scary situation for the first time. This is what you signed up for, parents, and it isn’t over just because the kid finished puberty, got a driver’s license, turned 18, or whatever.
The Parade article never says that. It explains how the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed and dopamine hasn’t reached optimal levels and therefore teenagers can’t make decisions as wisely, and it gives a couple of tips for helping teens learn useful skills, but it never once reminds parents that their teenagers are still their children. It never suggests that sometimes “the trouble with teenagers” is that adults expect them to act like experienced adults.
You know what? When I was 30, a successful career woman and homeowner with a retirement fund and a washing machine and all that, living 1,400 miles from my parents and often talking with them on the phone only once a month or so . . . one of my favorite co-workers was hit by a car and severely brain-damaged, and when her family decided to remove life support everyone else in the office went to the hospital to say goodbye, but I knew she couldn’t hear me and I wanted to remember her the way she was, so I was all alone in the office knowing she was dying . . . and I pulled out my calling card and called my parents. And they weren’t at all annoyed that I interrupted their day with my frantic despair over this issue that really had nothing to do with them. They were there to empathize and soothe me. After all, I’m still their child.