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Understanding your Teen’s Development

BrainA parent recently asked are teens “crazy”… because she’d seen a book titled “Yes, Your Teen is Crazy”, which describes recent brain imaging studies.

In full disclosure, I haven’t read this book yet, but have perused it. The basic message is solid – but I caution folks to realize the main point is a bit overstated.

I’ve reviewed many brain imaging studies. They do suggest teen brains on average look different from adult brains (not in shape or size, but in the way they function). That only tells us that teens are in developmental flux, and that more development is on the way. Their development may continue into very early twenties in fact. But, that doesn’t mean teens are “nuts” (as one book reviewer joked). It doesn’t mean that teens are unable to make good, thoughtful decisions, or be responsible.

These brain imaging studies should never be used as an excuse for negative behavior in any teen, especially if the bulk of teenagers otherwise handle similar situations well. In America, we have a tendency to blame biology for our problems. And we have more than our share of problems with many teens growing up – not because their brains are wired funny – but because we adults have prolonged their childhood and adolescence. The fact is, kids here grow up very, very late. Anecdotally, teens act less mature in America than the average teen I’ve come across in other countries.

We hover. We worry. We often do too much for children who are capable. We give them to much attention and resources. We also stress and pressure them to be early top performers in everything they do. This combination between pushing them to achieve early at all cost coupled with doing too much for them to make them look mature and look smarter could make any teen feel and act “nuts!!”

How to understand your teen’s brain development? In short, teens on average will be more emotional. Many will be more impulsive. They will fight with you and their friends more (they call this having “drama”). They will need your close attention and help and certainly your love for years to come – but not all teens are the same. In my experience, many can mature earlier when their parents push them to be responsible and self-sufficient. Others need a longer road and more parenting/mentorship simply because they are late bloomers.

Let’s all keep an eye on our behavior as parents and educators. Early in childhood, don’t push them to achieve too much and don’t do too much for them if they are more than capable. Let them have ownership of their actions and choices. Don’t interfere with their sense of responsibility by fixing everything. Always give them opportunities to grow up in the real world.

Finally, brain-wise, don’t worry about what’s going on beneath the surface. The biology of the brain knows what its doing…. it will take care of itself.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Why Kids Tune You Out – and 5 Steps that Will Help!

iStock_000014442623Large (2)By middle school, kids tune out parents and tune into peers. They get defensive as soon as they hear a mom or dad’s’ voice. Shields go up and good advice can’t get through. How can you get your kids to listen? Here are five basic steps to help. I use them in my work everyday talking with children. You can too.

Step One: Don’t lead with advice. Don’t start off a conversation with solutions or directives. Kids automatically hear it as “you messed up” or “you can’t think for yourself.” That shuts down their active listening.

Step Two: Join in. Start a conversation by sincerely acknowledging how they feel and what they’re going through. For example, “Wow – that’s terrible you’re friend didn’t invite you… sorry… that must hurt a lot.” And stop it there. Let a few seconds or minutes of silence go by. This is how kids share problems with one another. I’ve heard it many times in my work. And I’ve found that using this style of interacting really helps when I need to communicate something very important and sensitive.

Step Three: Don’t lecture. In my work, I frequently see parents lecturing their kids about what they already know. The more a parent does this – the less a child listens.

Step Four: Pose questions (don’t offer solutions). This encourages children to think for themselves. I tell parents to Position Yourself as a Learner. Truly listen and learn from your kids. Don’t interrupt. Show you want to learn about their world, who they are, and how they think. Bite your tongue when you get that urge to offer advice. Keep your anxiety at bay. Stop the impulse to teach and fix every problem because it makes you nervous.

Step Five: Ask permission to offer advice. Say, “I have an idea… you want to hear what I’m thinking… could help?” If they decline your offer, respect that. Wait. Try another time. In many cases, giving them a little space allows them to circle back to you when they’re ready to listen.

That’s when your advice gets through and takes hold.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Is It Shyness or Something on the Spectrum?

frightened little girlRecently I heard from a parent of an almost 4 year old boy, described as smart, but shy at school. The teacher is recommending testing to see if he’s “on the spectrum”. This is a classic case of teachers diagnosing through suggestion – and while trying to be helpful – it can create enormous anxiety in families.

Worse, untrained (good) intentions can send kids down the wrong diagnostic path. That’s because there are no objective tests for “the spectrum”, as there are no objective tests for the most common boy diagnosis, ADHD. The error rate in diagnosing these is high. Yet, getting the right help to kids early who need it is important. What’s the best approach?

As I say in my book, The Way of Boys, don’t rush the diagnostic process. And beware of your anxiety. The more you worry, the more you’ll likely move ahead without considering all possibilities, including a better school environment or different teaching style. If your teacher has a concern, the best place to start is with a trusted professional that knows you and your child – your pediatrician. Also, giving a young child time to grow and develop is very important. If the problem persist five or six months down the line, then it deserves further assessment.

In the case of this shy 4 year old, I’d start by having the parents address the teacher’s concerns head-on. If there are obvious developmental delays in language, great difficulty in making eye contact, playing almost always alone, and over-fascination with only one or two toys or non-play objects, then I’d be inclined to get him tested now. Otherwise, it’s best to teach him the social basics and see if those help address the concerns.

For shy boys, directly coach them on the steps of how best to relate to others. Teach them these basics, and practice over and over.

1. Walking up to other kids and saying hello

2. Looking kids in the eye

3. Announcing one’s name clearly – with a nice tone

4. Asking the other child his name – with confidence in their voice

5. And most important, asking to join in play or inviting other kids to doing something fun.

Go to parks and playgroups and make it happen. Arrange playdates and keep going to small positive group activities where they see some of the same kids everyday or afternoon. Gently push him away from you and into the company of peers. Keep calm and project confidence so he knows there’s nothing to worry about.

If a child comes back to you, hides, or refuses to leave you, step off. Ignore that behavior completely. Don’t console him. Then try again. Push and encourage him, and slowly walk off, fade into the background. Let him have more and more time away from you. Don’t interrupt the play or hover. Let his social life belong to him (mistakes and all) – that’s how he learns.

Shyness is often constitutional. but it can be molded and shaped. and shy kids often rush to their parents at very low levels of anxiety. Don’t pay it attention – if you do, that only makes future shyness worse. Reassuring too much suggests to your child that maybe there is something real and dangerous out there when there isn’t.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Is my kid weird?

Question and Answers on speech bubblesA Facebook parent asked: How much do you push kids to fit in? Our son is sometimes seen as “weird” by the other kids. Their words can hurt. He has impulse problems and doesn’t read social cues well.

On one hand we’re told to get young kids ready for the “real” world. Toughen them up to fit in and adjust to what’s expected. Yet, on the other hand, we’re told not to squelch what makes them feel special and what makes them different or unique. We often tell kids it’s a good thing to follow the beat of their own drum.

These two approaches (and the messages they send to kids and parents) seem opposite and confusing. Which approach should you follow?

Follow both. That gets your kids the best from both approaches. Sometimes fitting in is necessary. You have to push kids to learn new behaviors and squelch their desires to express themselves and suppress their quirky nature. The faster they learn new behaviors to fit in, the less others will be mean or pick on them. This is the basis of learning better social skills, for example at school. Teach the skills they need to know step-by-step and rehearse the new behaviors frequently at home so they can start to use them in the “real” world.

Yet, there are times kids should just be themselves. So help your child “find his people.” These are other kids who are like-minded, share interests, or share a quirky nature. Let them just be who they are in smaller groups. In my office, kids can be themselves, but we always talk about what behaviors go best with what situations. Sometimes we talk about being two people. The person at school or at soccer practice versus  the person we really are when at home or when around trusted friends. Adults can relate to this as well.

The sooner you train your kids to adopt different styles of behaving – and teach them which situations to use them in – the more confidence they will have navigating in the world. It will also help protect their inner spirit and allow that spirit to flourish in safer, more accepting situations.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Incessant Questions? Here’s the answer

Question and Answers on speech bubblesQuestion: What can I do when my child asks questions over and over (and over) again?

While parents don’t want to squelch curiosity and persistence, your frustration will no doubt slip through and that will lead to some angry feelings.

In my experience, kids ask as many questions as their parents will allow. In other words, if you open the door they will keep asking… even if they don’t need answers. There are many reasons for this. Certainly, some of it is because they’re curious about the world, but often, they’re simply seeking attention. They’re bored. It’s a habit they fall back on. Sometimes it’s worse around siblings or when you’re trying to talk to a spouse because they fear the loss of attention.

It’s helpful to explain to kids that children and adults are different. “Adult talking” is different from “kid talking.” Kids like to ask lots of questions and adults like breaks and quiet time. Tell them, “this is adult time… and we’re not going to ask questions right now…” It’s also good to explain that adults don’t always have answers. You can set up a rule that asking the same question more than once (if there’s no answer to offer) won’t be tolerated. Trust me, even if you’re tough on them about this it won’t squelch their curiosity one bit.

This may be a great time to work on interrupting, which all kids do. If they have a question, ask them to hold onto it for a few seconds and count to three or five or ten before asking.

Finally, if persistent questions are about trying to get what they want (and not about learning something new) that’s a different type issue. Be tough. Ignore those. Tell them that type of asking is inappropriate. They have to learn how to hold back their thoughts and desires sometimes in order to to fit into groups and get along with friends and peers.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.