Gazing at my pudgy boys rolling around the sandbox, stubbornly innocent as 2 year-olds are, I flashed forward to my future: these toddlers are going to be teenagers. They will become hulking young men who grunt in response to queries, and leave their pungent gym clothes on the floor.
I grew up with an older brother. I know what the boy teenager is like. I endured glass eyeballs in my soup, and buckets of water tumbling unexpectedly on my head. One day I slammed my bedroom door shut, to find a life-size nude photo of Henry Kissinger staring at me (this landed me on the therapists couch for a few years). Now I was soon to have 2 of these beasts living with me! If my brother was any indication, it was not going to be pretty. I informed my husband I’d be moving out when our boys got to that stage.
Now, they are at that stage. My older son asks me what I mean by a seemingly innocuous statement, such as “carrots are usually orange” with the aggression of a charging rhino. Later he curls up on the couch like a Yorkshire Terrier to reminisce about family reunions. The emotional pendulum swings wide with little to push it.
I picked up The Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, by Laurence Steinberg to enlighten me. Maybe science could tell me something. Dr. Steinberg is a distinguished professor at Temple University. He is an expert on neuroscience as it relates to the developing adolescent.
Steinberg likens adolescence to ‘driving a car with a very sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes.’ Neurologically, he explains, adolescents are experiencing the world in high contrast, sweet is sweeter, embarrassment is mortifying, break-up is tragedy. It’s no surprise, he says, that music from our adolescence still evokes a visceral response.
In teenage years ‘. . . ordinary events trigger extraordinary emotions’, and yet these strong emotions are not checked by a sensitive brake pedal as well.
Steinberg explains, adolescents often don’t have the ability to contextualize, plan and then respond before emotional floods overwhelm them.
What can we do about this? The book offers strategies for adolescents and coping with them, two of which I found useful for any age child. Best of all, they are speech-language related. I call them Buy Time and Reframe.
Buy Time—use reasoning
Intuitively parents do this all the time. For example, when your toddler gets apoplectic after being told she can’t take her slide on the plane as a travel toy, most parents try a little logic, ‘It won’t fit.’ If that fails, we distract them. If we can get them to focus on something else, they calm down. As kids get older they learn to inhibit initial reactions. This is why when someone leaves too many dirty dishes in the sink, I don’t fall to the floor screaming and stamping my feet. Well, only in the rarest of occasions. I’ve learned how to quell the wave of emotion. A bit.
For teens, when the tidal wave of emotion begins, they can start to learn how to distract themselves. I suggest my boys run through the names of all the characters in Lord of the Rings (none of which I can pronounce), or name the planets in order from the sun. Buying time doesn’t solve a problem, but gives reasoning a chance to step in. Buying time to give peace a chance, can be taught from an early age. As Cookie Monster says on Sesame Street, ‘When me on the brink, need to just calm down. Me need to stop and think.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PnbKL3wuH4&noredirect=1
What does this have to do with Language? Inhibiting reactionary responses in order to assess and plan is language related. Language helps us reason ‘If …… then….’ Language is a tool for reasoning. Being able to stay the course and inhibit responses to distractions is part of what’s known as Executive Function (EF refers to a cluster of abilities, which allow us to work towards a goal, persist, and be flexible with changes along the way)
Reframing requests (marketing is everything)
Steinberg notes adolescents are more responsive to potential rewards and less sensitive to potential losses. Offering a positive reward will likely get you farther than threatening the loss of money, screen time or another valued entity.
Framing a request, such as ‘Vacuum your room, put your clothes away, and you can play video games for an hour!’ works way better than, ‘If you don’t vacuum your room and put your clothes away, there will be no video games tonight!’ Frankly I’m truly terrible at framing things positively, but it is more effective and makes you look a whole lot better too.
I am aiming for well adjusted, articulate teenagers who help old people cross the street, but will consider it all a success if they can handle their emotional swings, wake up before noon and put their used gym clothes in the hamper.