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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

Teen Behaviour: How to support your teen in their transition to adulthood

As a parent you always want the best for your teen, but sometimes it’s hard to see eye to eye on what the “best” is with your young person. If you want to better understand why your teen thinks and makes the decisions they do, along with why this particular stage of life is so challenging, then you do not want to miss this episode!

Michelle dives deep into the science behind it all and connects the dots between your teens actions and the support they need at this stage of life. This episode is packed with valuable information that will help you understand your young person and be able to better support them through this exciting yet uncomfortable transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Take a listen!

Topics Discussed

  • The science behind an adolescent’s brain development, when do our teens actually become adults?

  • Dealing with your young person’s risk taking behaviour and impulsive decision making, and how these actions are beneficial to the growth of your teen.

  • Why gap years are incredibly formative for teenagers, especially at this age and stage of life.

  • Things that your young person will turn to you for, and how you can show up for them and support them in the most impactful way.

  • Tapping into the programs and coaching CanGap offers to help support you and young people through this exhilarating gap year journey!

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00 Nerd alert! Nerd alert! But for all the right reasons.

If you want to understand why your teenager thinks the way that they do, and why you are challenged by this stage of life, this episode is for you, backed by science, connecting it to your kids gap year or not so much valuable information to help you understand your young person and how to better support them through this transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Take a listen!

Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and gap year expert, but today I am also your brain science expert.

If you didn't know this about me, I hold my undergraduate degree in biology and I am a big, huge nerd. So I'm so excited you're here to nerd out with me today all about the brain science in later adolescence because I find this so phenomenally interesting and inspiring and it provides so much insight as to why our.

Young adult children behave the way they do and that is why it is such a complicated time in life when we have so much friction with our young people and when we dive into the biology of it, things start to make sense.

So stick around with me because even in the first 5 minutes of this episode you're going to have your mind blown and you will start to see so many reasons why you are having conflict with your young person. So I'm really excited to bring this topic to you, and I invite you to really stick around and take a listen.

Michelle Dittmer - 02:28

So what happens socially in life? We have decided as a society that when someone is an adult when they turn 18, they have the right to make their own decisions, they can vote, they have the ability to drive at 16. So we've given them all the autonomy and all the power at this made-up age of 18. But when we look at the brain science of it, the brain isn't fully developed until about the age of 25 years old.

So there's a seven-year gap between when society has almost arbitrarily said you're a grown up and when the brain is fully functioning at its fully adult capacity. So I think that gives us some insight too.

But what's more interesting is the way that the brain develops. So the brain actually develops from the core and from the back through to the front.

And it's really in that, in that core of the brain where we have this fight or flight reflex, this reptilian brain that's all about survival, about immediate gratification and impulsive decisions and the last part of our brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex.

So right under your forehead there and that prefrontal cortex is actually responsible for decision making, for understanding the consequences of our actions and even looking into the future. So I said in the 1st 5 minutes, but we're not even 3 minutes in and I think that explanation alone can help us to really, really start to see why we struggle.

We are assuming that our quote un quote adult children should behave like adults, but the reality is that they are not biologically programmed to think like adults, talk about setting them up for failure.

It's not that they're incapable of thinking about the future. It's not that they're incapable of fully rational decision making, but they're just not biologically programmed that way so they really have to work at it, be very intentional and it doesn't come naturally to them.

So of course they're going to struggle with questions around the dinner table from grandma about what do you want to do for the rest of your life, or pick a career path at age 17. Those are things that the brain just isn't wired to be able to process in a fully functioning adult way.

Michelle Dittmer - 05:16

Now, it's always funny when we think about brain development because a lot of emphasis is put on brain development in the early years. So let's go back to when your kid was a toddler.

Toddlers throw tantrums because their brain is having a hard time processing what is going on, they're having a hard time processing their emotions. The brain is not ready for what they are experiencing, and so they have these meltdowns.

But we know from parenting these toddlers and from parenting experts that we shouldn't shame them for these breakdowns. We shouldn't expect them not to throw tantrums because that behaviour is age appropriate for the way that their brain is developing.

But how often do we fail to see this in our young adults? We so often expect them to perform as adults when they're not fully biologically equipped to be able to do that.

Michelle Dittmer - 06:24

Now I'm going to just push pause on the teenage brain here for a second and I'm going to hold up a little bit of a mirror because I think this is an important piece for parents to think about.

Now remember when your toddler, through that massive meltdown in a store kicking and screaming and yelling? Maybe you had to leave your grocery cart full of melting ice cream in the middle of the store to take that toddler out there and how embarrassing that felt, how you fear judgement from other parents because you couldn't control your child. Maybe a little bit of shame crept in there.

But we all know that behaviour of that child was not a reflection of poor parenting, but as parents, we felt judged and in the same way, perhaps, just maybe, this is what I want you to think about your desire for your teenage child to behave appropriately as an adult is actually your fear of judgement from your peers.

So sometimes when we fear judgement, we try to push our young people into a state of adulthood of conforming behaviour and hide away the things that are less desirable but developmentally appropriate for our teenagers to do.

But what I also want you to remember is to go back to that time when that kid was throwing that tantrum and the older moms looked at you with knowing eyes and they would give you that smile, or they would even tell you that you were doing a good job as a parent. Sometimes we don't hear that often enough as parents of teenagers, and no matter how your teenager is behaving, you are doing a good job parenting a teenager.

And I'm hoping that this information about their brain development will help you to accept who they are and to look at some of the behaviour in a way that is developmentally appropriate for them.

Michelle Dittmer - 08:38

So we're going to get back on track here. Often when we see this teenage behaviour that is undesirable, so this risk taking of this impulsive nature, those moments where you're kind of banging your head against a wall going what were you thinking? And they responded, well, I wasn't thinking. It's because they're telling the truth.

They cannot see the big picture in the same way that you or I can as a fully developed adult brain. But not only is this risk taking and this lack of a brake pedal, sometimes that can be very risky and dangerous and often we go to the ideas of drugs and alcohol and sex and all of those risky behaviors.

But most teenagers aren't engaging in that type of risky behaviour, they're auditioning for the school play, or they're taking a course they never thought that they would want to, or they are asking out that person that they have a crush on, those are all risk taking behaviours.

But this risk taking behaviour is actually an evolutionary benefit and one of my favourite youth researchers, her name is Alana Doherty, she studies youth innovation and she has found that in all of the times in our lives, the young people in adolescence, this is when their brain is most wired for novel thinking, for innovation, for new ways to solve problems or new ways of creating or discovering.

These are all things that, as adults, we have aged out of. That prefrontal cortex comes in and puts on the no, that's never going to work. No, you can't. That's too dangerous.

All of these things we feel reminding our teenagers as young people, those are the things that get in the way of innovation and challenging things.

Innovation is their superpower, they don't have the brakes put on like the adult does. So while we see thousands of reasons why something won't work, they're just ready to try something out and they don't see those same limitations.

And that's one of the reasons why a gap year works so well for young adults. At this age and stage in their life, they are like little sponges for learning from their environment, from experiential learning, from getting out there and testing and trying things. They just learn so quickly from being able to take those risks that in the long run they see this paying dividends on their future.

They get out there, they sample things, they try things. They learn more about themselves and about the world so that they have this scaffolding. They have this schema in their brain of how the world actually works.

And when they go into higher education, they can slot that in and amongst that deeper understanding and learning that they've experienced in their gap year. So it really is a time for them to get out there and experiment and to learn.

So we feel that challenge as parents because we have that fully developed frontal lobe and we see the consequences and we see the challenges that are lying ahead of them when they make these decisions and as parents, we also feel that's our duty to protect them, to prevent them from getting hurt, to stop them from failing, to create this bubble around them because we don't want to see them struggle.

And this is where that gap year attention comes in. The kid, the young adult wants to try something risky that we see as adults as risky or useless, quote UN quote from our parent parental perspective.

And we want them to focus on their future. We want them to avoid negative consequences. We want them to be responsible adults, for goodness sake, why do you want to go to Australia? That doesn't make any sense.

But for them, in that phase of exploration and learning from their environment and learning about themselves, it does make complete sense to them and it is a milestone in their brain development to have these experiences that are going to form who they are and how they think as a full-fledged adult once they reach full maturity.

Michelle Dittmer - 13:16

Now, in late adolescence and early adult youth, they're really looking for a couple key things in their lives. They're looking for belonging and connection.

That's something that almost supersedes a lot of the other basic needs. So we talk about peer pressure and wanting to spend more time with their peers than with their family because belonging and connection is of utmost importance at this time of life, and it is a place where they get authentic feedback from their peer community on what?

Who they are and who they want to be, so that is really, really important to them in these late adolescent years.

They're also really focused on becoming independent, and this can be a really difficult piece as parents because we're used to thinking of them as a child, as dependent on us.

And there's still lots of things they are dependent on us for they can't financially sustain themselves for the most part. They can't make all of the decisions they need to make on their own.

But there is this push and pull between that young person wanting to be independent but also needing their family and that can be really, really emotionally challenging for parents.

One of the best analogies I heard, and I use it all the time when talking to parents who are struggling with their teenager, is think of when your child was learning to swim and think of yourself as that wall that they would hold onto you for dear life. When they're learning to swim, they don't know how to swim, they're going to hold on. So that's in their childhood.

But once they start to learn to swim, they push off that wall, and that's what they do in adolescence, they push away from that place of security, that wall that they were holding onto to try and swim on their own.

And sometimes they're going to need you to grab and pull them back to the wall. Sometimes they're going to be able to tread for a little while and they're going to get tired, and then they're going to swim themselves back to the wall back to you.

But once they feel stable again, once they feel competent, they're going to push off that wall again and sometimes pushing off that while they push off real hard, they push off with attitude, they push off with defiance, because that's how they are asserting themselves to that place of independence.

But they know that wall is going to be there, and if you can be that rock wall for them when they need to, they know that you are there for them and they will come swimming back when they need a break, when they need something trusted and reliable, you can be that wall for them.

So if you're in a stage right now where you're a young person pushing off that wall hard, it hurts. But you are doing a great job as a parent as they are developing their sense of independence.

This is a healthy process for them and a painful one for us as parents. But you are doing a great job.

So belonging, connection, independence, they're also looking for respect and that comes along with independence and growing up. They understand that there is a hierarchy in society and they don't want to be seen as a child anymore.

They want to be respected for the individual that they are and that they are becoming and I don't think we should fault them for that.

They deserve respect. They have great ideas of their own and so how can we show up and show them that we have respect for them?

Michelle Dittmer - 16:48

And that's a lot of the work that we do as coaches at the Canadian Gap Year Association, as we honour their ideas and their connections and the way that they're showing up in the world and we give them that respect and we make sure that they feel respected so that we can get to a place of supporting them on their gap year.

Now, the other thing that goes along with respect is they're looking for power over things that impact them. They don't want to be the subject of somebody else's decisions.

If something is going to impact them, they want to be part of that conversation and again, they're having this awareness of how the world works and they want to be actively involved in it.

So I want you to think as a parent, how can you support them in belonging and connection independence building, giving them respect and giving them power over the things that impact them.

Now, we often know that there is this tension as parents about this brain development and how they're showing up and how we can actually support them.

And one of my favourite tools is from the search institute This is out of the US and they have a framework called the developmental relationships framework. And what this says is they've researched millions of people, and the more developmental relationships a young person has, the more successful they are in life. But what makes a developmental relationship?

A developmental relationship is between an adult, a caring adult, who exhibits these following criteria in the relationship they have with a young person.

So I'm going to name them off and then we'll dive into each of them.

They express care, they challenge growth, they provide support, they share power and they expand possibilities. So I think it's really important that we just unpack each of these quickly.

So expressing care, they need to know that you are there, you care about them, that maybe you don't understand what you're going through, but you care about what they're going through and that you can showcase and express that to them in through words, in through actions, through ways that they are going to understand that you are there for them and that you care for them on their journey.

The next is challenge growth and this is providing them with the opportunity to step up. So not necessarily correcting them, but giving them that next layer of questioning, hey, I saw that you had this particular challenge. Could you think you could have handled it differently and asked them to step up in different ways in their lives, giving them those opportunities.

Not just knocking them down when they make a mistake, but challenging them to grow, whether that is through learning new things, whether that is through taking on new responsibilities, whether that is through expanding how they treat other people, whatever that is challenging them to grow.

The next one is providing support. How can you as an adult, with your network of people, with your life knowledge, with your life experience, how can you support them on their journey? How can you help them achieve their goals? That is your role as an adult. That is how you provide support.

Sharing power is the next one, and we talked about that with this idea of them wanting to have power over things that impact them. You are no longer the omnipotent parent that can pull the veto card on anything.

There are times when that young person needs to have power over the decisions and choices in their life and have power over the things that they get involved in. We need to relinquish some of that power to our young person for them to be able to grow. For them to be able to develop into healthy adults.

And the last one expands possibilities. Show them what is out there. This is our superpower here at the Canadian Gap Year Association is don't just settle for the status quo, but make connections for them.

Hey, it looks like you're really interested in makeup, did you know how many different jobs there are in the makeup industry?

I challenge you to go and find 17 different jobs. Help them to be connected to different people. Hey, you know what you look like you really enjoy cars. Would you like to come to my brother's mechanic shop and tinker around with a few cars for a day? Giving them the opportunity to get out there and try things and try things that they never thought imaginable because your world as a child is pretty small and isolated, as we grow into adolescence and then adulthood, we expand possibilities, we expand our knowledge, we expand our network.

So let's share that with the young people in our lives.

Here at the Canadian Gap Year Association, we are an incredible resource to coach your young person. We live this brain science, we live developmental relationships, and we know that the more caring adults a young person has in their life, the more likely they are to be successful.

We also know that not all teenagers are going to listen to their parents. So we may say the exact same thing that you would say as a parent, but because we're not mum or dad. They listen to it with a different, different set of ears in a different way.

We want kids to have a successful gap year, and sometimes that takes the support of a coach to help guide them on their gap year. So if that sounds like your kid, if that sounds like something you might be interested in, by all means check out our website for more information on all of our coaching packages and how we can support your young person.

But equally important, how this episode has kind of been divided half between your teenager's brain and our role as parents.

Can't Gap specialises in supporting parents through this journey as well, because it's not just about the young person, it's challenging for the whole family to go through this transition.

So keep an eye out on our website. We have parenting workshops that we run, and we can help support you on your half of the gap year journey that your family is on.

We are really so thrilled to be able to share this knowledge and these resources with you and your family as you explore all the amazing possibilities that are out there and see true value in this stage of life. Not just as something to rush through to get through to adulthood.

It really is its own piece of development and we need to honour how the brain plays into that and how we can provide really formative experiences like a gap year, to support that development. I'm so happy you joined us for this episode, and I hope you found it interesting, feel free to leave a comment, subscribe to other episodes, because we'd love to share more gap year gold with you.

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