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Is there a trick to understanding teenagers?

Anybody who has lived through the damp-faced, kicking and screaming reality of a toddler who wants to drive the car, or stay up all night, or go and live somewhere else, will know that a difference of opinion with a small child can seriously ruin a day.

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However bad it is, though, you have the consolation of knowing that you did the right thing by refusing: it is your responsibility as an adult to get between a child and plans that may be life threatening. Now fast forward ten years or so: you are now arguing with somebody who looks and talks like another adult. You are no longer so clearly in the right. Many adolescents can argue like adults; they have also lived with you all these years and have a keen insight into how to push your buttons. The last two decades have seen a great deal of academic interest in the adolescent brain. Scientists now believe that the changes taking place in the brains of teenagers may be as significant as those that occur in the brains of babies in the first year of life. New insights from neuroscience help to explain why some adolescents may be peculiarly limited in their capacity to empathize, remarkably sensitive to embarrassment, and inclined toward risky behavior. Like toddlers, teenagers are in the process of working out how to live in their upgraded brains and bodies. It is crucial that they have calm, thoughtful adults around them to assert boundaries and curb impulses in light of long-term outcomes. (Sounds like fun, right?) If you’ve ever wanted to test your limits for maintaining mindful focus and compassion, living with a teenager will do that for you.

So, here are some suggestions as to how a mindful approach may see everybody safely through the whole experience.

Observe your own thoughts and identify what you really need to achieve

Let’s say you asked a teenager if they would please put their plate in the dishwasher rather than leaving it in the sink. Some adolescents might hear this as an open challenge for who is in charge in the kitchen this morning. The fact remains: you pay all the bills, buy the food and, indeed, the plates and dishwasher—you are in charge. But if you end up getting drawn into a discussion of these facts, then things have gone wrong. As adolescents grow up, hey need to feel that they have the power to shape their own world, to make decisions and develop their own judgment. This kind of thinking can lead them to see whatever the difference of opinion may be, in terms of power and status—a winner and a loser. If you get drawn into this frame of reference, you may well find your own need to assert your status is activated. By maintaining an awareness of your own responses, you can take steps to avoid engaging with this explosive and tangential issue. If you can maintain your focus on what really is important to you, then you can be generous and creative in the way that you negotiate.

You don't have to be in control

You can pick a toddler up, and put them under your arm and physically remove them from whatever may be causing a problem. There is a reason that the phrase “you can't stop me!” is a cliché of conflict with teenagers: they are right, in most cases, you physically cannot stop them from doing what they want. In her book “Get Out of My Life, But First Take Me and Alex into Town”, psychologist Suzanne Franks points out that “with adolescents, the best you can get is imperfect control. There are rules and they are obeyed, sometimes and sort of … yet controls are absolutely necessary.” For a majority of teenagers, Franks writes, “this imperfect control is enough. It is all you need.” Knowing that you are likely to be partially successful, at best, in your attempts to control what your teenager does can be terrifying. But if you can tolerate uncertainty without becoming entangled in anxious thoughts, then you are much more likely to be able to respond with compassion when they come to you for help. If you can listen without passing judgment, then you will be a much more appealing confidante.

Be an example of the benefits of mindful living

It is a truth, as well as a truism, that children learn more from seeing how adults act than they do from listening to them. If you maintain a regular practice of mindfulness—and it informs your relationships and your day-to-day life—then this will likely have an impact on the teenagers in your life. If you find the practice of mindfulness makes being a grown up easier, then it may be worth suggesting it to the teenagers in your life as they encounter the same challenges that led to your practice.

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