I usually invite my guests to sit with me (figuratively) on that comfy orange couch in my living room, but today's friend agreed to join me (literally) at a conference, and I was so blessed by her wisdom and fellowship I wanted to bring you into our conversation. Last week, Jerusha Clark and I shared a booth at The Great Homeschool Convention with my book, Triggers: Exchanging Parents' Angry Reactions for Gentle Biblical Responses rubbing shoulders with her most recent release, Your Teenager Is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen's Brain Can Make You a Better Parent.
What I learned, as we conversed with moms both separately and together, is that teenagers can be a trigger in their very own category! However, like every trigger that Amber Lia and I address in our book, the more you know about your triggers, the less likely you are to be triggered by them. Same is true for the teen who's pushing boundaries, talking back, and looking for their growing sense of autonomy and independence there in your home.
The more you understand their developing brain, the more grace and help you can offer them as they grow.
The Biological Trigger Most Parents Don’t Even Know Exists…
by Jerusha Clark
Ever heard of mirror neurons?
Neither had I, until I started trying to understand the teenagers living in my house, that is. Turns out, these tiny brain cells play a major role in parenting anyone from 11-25 years of age. Yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.
God created mirror neurons to help your kids (and you!) learn by example. They’re also crucial in developing empathy. When you watch someone laugh hysterically, drink a cup of steaming coffee, or burst into tears, the mirror neurons in your brain fire. Your senses vicariously participate in what you observe. This explains, in part, why women like me cry at sappy commercials (C’mon; I know I’m not the only one!) It also helps explain why, when your teen wigs out, you feel like wigging out, too (and vice versa.)
While scientists are still learning about these amazing brain cells, studies suggest that when mirror neurons activate, imitation of both positive and negative behaviors occurs. In other words, your teen’s brain is constantly watching, evaluating, and reproducing your emotions and actions. Talk about evidence that parents need to model appropriate behavior! Next time you feel like blowing your top at your angry teen, take a moment to let your mirror neurons calm down (more on this later)!
My husband and I have spent several years exploring scientific research and biblical wisdom about parenting adolescents. It’s been absolutely fascinating to witness how neuroscience is just now catching up with and proving the timeless wisdom of Scripture. Consider this well known verse in light of what you just learned about mirror neurons:
“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare” (Proverbs 15:1).
God not only gives us “good advice” in the Bible; He actually designed our bodies and brains in concert with His truth. Mirror neurons are at play when you respond to your tweens and teens. It’s wonderful and wild, isn’t it?!
I know it’s tough raising adolescents. I’m right in the thick of it! But I’ve got good news for all of us: we don't have to throw our hands up in defeat. I’d love to share two practical tips for anyone who wants to move beyond “getting through” their kids’ tween and teenage years and actually thrive during this season.
- Don’t be a diversion. When you lose emotional control, adolescents divert energy to evaluating your behavior rather than their own. You don’t want this. Instead, keeping your cool forces your teenager’s feelings and the heart motives behind them to the surface. In a fascinating series of studies, researchers determined that when adolescents fixate on someone else’s emotions, their ability to process other information weakens. In other words, your angry expression and tone of voice dulls your teenager’s capacity to hear the content of your message (those powerful mirror neurons are going crazy!) If you want to have an effective conversation with your adolescent, don’t allow your emotion to distract him from what you’re communicating.
- Take ninety seconds. Social neurobiologists study how brain chemistry impacts relationships. Their research shows that emotions follow a predictable ninety-second arc. This means that any emotion you or your adolescent feels will rise and fall within ninety seconds if proverbial fuel isn’t added to the fire. Here’s the practical application: If you know your feelings aren’t under control, remove yourself from the situation. Excuse yourself to get a glass of water, go into the bathroom (even if all you do in there is silently scream), or flat-out say, “Look, I need to take ninety seconds here.” Some of you may be thinking, “That may work for others, but I’ve tried the whole counting to ten thing, and my kid just pushes and pushes.” Fair enough. This may happen, and it may happen often. Remember, however: you are the adult. Despite what a teen does, you can communicate, “I am trying to get my emotions under control, so I’m not going to talk again for two minutes.” Chances are, the first few times you say something like this, your teen or tween may be annoyed or angered. Hold your ground. After seeing you take ninety seconds a few times, your kids may start to experience the same calming sensation that comes from riding out the neurological rise and fall. In a non-combative moment, explain the biology behind your ninety-second discipline. You may be surprised at your adolescent’s reaction. Flipping out doesn’t feel good. Unbridled anger and bitterness are poisonous emotions that leave us feeling worse than when we started. Your teen or tween may see the benefit in taking time to allow the heat of emotion to pass. Ninety seconds doesn’t solve the situation, but it puts out some of the emotional flames and lays the groundwork for healthier communication.
I invite you to learn more about your adolescent’s brain, because understanding it can make you a better, gentler parent! If you’re ready to forego those knee-jerk reactions when your teenager is acting like a teenager, check out Your Teenager Is Not Crazy, available from Baker Books at bookstores and online.
Jerusha Clark co-authored four books with her husband Jeramy, including three bestsellers, prior to launching her own writing and speaking ministry, focused on helping others glorify and enjoy God, one thought at a time.
On quiet days, you can find Jerusha body-boarding, reading, or singing around a bonfire at the beach, her absolute favorite place. Jeramy and Jerusha have two amazing teenage daughters and love ministering together at churches, retreats, schools, and conferences.