Right now, at this moment, in my very home, I have a 12-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. We have three children, and I will admit, there’s a pretty good spread between the oldest and the youngest. I won’t go into all the details as to why that happened, but what I will say is that on the low end, our daughter isn’t all that far removed from the toddler age, and on the high end, our son is considered a preteen.
I will also say this: I’ve noticed some similarities in their behavior. Sure, one is a better communicator than the other. There’s no doubt about that. But both are easily frustrated. Both are pretty good at getting offended, and both aren’t remotely afraid to state their opinions, or act like they are the expert in the room, when, in fact, they aren’t.
If I’m not arguing with one about putting on her shoes, I’m arguing with the other about taking a shower. And perhaps noticing these similarities between my youngest and my oldest is the reason I was nodding my head as I read a recent statement by Dr. Kathleen Van Antwerp, the leading expert in juvenile justice reform. She was the keynote speaker at University of Utah’s “Breaking the Pipeline” fourth annual symposium where she addressed ways to plug the schools-to-prison pipeline trend.
According to the Deseret News she had this to say about teen and toddler development: “Developmentally, teens and toddlers are about at the same level, with each age group struggling to grow into the next stage of life, but not yet equipped with all the tools.”
And later, during her exchange with the participants, Van Antwerp noted how “toddlers have yet to develop a range of expressive skills, so they resort to physical, shrieking tantrums to convey their discontent. At the teenage stage, the part of the brain that controls emotion is hijacked developmentally, governing the teen’s behavior across the spectrum… Research shows the prefrontal cortex, the chief executive officer portion of the brain that governs rational, cognitive thinking, doesn’t develop until the mid-20s or later.”
But on the whole, why does this matter? Well… for me as a parent, it surely gives me some insight into what I’m dealing with when it comes to my son. Emotionally, he’s all over the place. He eats all the time. A few months ago, I showed him how to make pancakes, and suddenly he thinks he can live on his own. But he is a bright kid and well-behaved young man. He communicates well, has friends, so on the whole, it feels like he’s just a shorter, softer faced, adult. But realizing that emotionally he is still developing — in ways similar to how a toddler is developing — helps me put things into perspective.
I’ll admit, I am looking at my son a little differently after reading this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still find him frustrating. But I’m also acknowledging the fact that just like how my youngest is struggling to communicate, he is struggling to manage his emotions, and it will take time for all that to settle. It’s changed my expectations of him, and it’s caused me to be more open about what he’s feeling, rather than just assuming that he’s… well… acting like a jerk, or being difficult for the sake of being difficult.
On the larger, outside of my family, societal level, understanding the emotional development of teenagers matters a lot. The real focus of Van Antwerp’s work is on stopping the pipeline between high schools and incarceration, and she feels a major contributor to that pipeline is that educators and resource officers are interested in stopping students’ behavior, but they aren’t trained in why that behavior is happening on a developmental level.
Van Antwerp has spent just over 30 years developing educational and outreach programs for at-risk youth in schools, juvenile justice programs, emergency care centers and foster homes, and what she’s found is that society makes the mistake of trying to manage behavior rather than understanding it. “[We] should be creating a school climate in which teachers, police and other adults are properly schooled in understanding developmental behavior, instead of simply reacting to something they don’t understand.”
That last line — “simply reacting to something they don’t understand” — is the real kicker for us as parents. I’ll say it, I didn’t understand my toddlers, so I just tried to expect the unexpected. Now I’m bracing myself to do the same with regards to my son and his teen years. In the heat of the moment, it’s pretty easy to respond to any child with raw emotion and focus on the behavior (you’ve been there). Particularly when you are being pulled in a million directions with ALL the things.
But I think if we can take anything away from the developmental observations of Dr. Van Antwerp, it’s this: each stage comes with its own roadblocks, and the moment you think you’ve figured your child out, they move into that next stage. Accepting that your teenager is still emotionally developing, similar to a toddler, really should help us locate that emotional calm that can, sometimes, be difficult to find in ourselves — and make their seemingly random emotional swings a little more expected.