In the second part of this series Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr. Udena Attygalle looks at teenage behaviour, while answering some questions that parents find perplexing Why do adolescents sometimes behave like “strangers in their own house”. A long time ago when still a teenager, I remember being told that “I behaved as if I was [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Getting to know that ‘stranger’ in your home


In the second part of this series Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr. Udena Attygalle looks at teenage behaviour, while answering some questions that parents find perplexing

Why do adolescents sometimes behave like “strangers in their own house”. A long time ago when still a teenager, I remember being told that “I behaved as if I was a stranger” in my own home! This, I now understand was part of my struggle (among others) of individuating and finding my own place in the world. The individuation process as suggested by Carl Jung, a psychiatrist in the early 20th century, describes the process of becoming aware of oneself, of one’s make-up, and the way to discover one’s true self. Like me, all parents will agree, that they too have struggled with this at some point in time.

The interesting paradox today is that, while teenagers are leaving their families as early as 16 in some countries, in others, young adults are staying together with their parents for longer and longer. In Sri Lanka, with the emphasis on long periods of education and then higher education, the trend seems to be towards the latter. Even if they do not physically stay with their parents, the situation is such that they find it hard to “individuate” fully from their families, due to financial and cultural factors. Parents, on the other hand sometimes struggle with letting go of the child they once knew, and getting to know the person that he/she is struggling to become.

Well known psychiatrist and family therapist Murray Bowen added a new dimension to this concept, and termed it “differentiation of self”. He suggested that a “well-differentiated self” can distinguish, clear thinking from thinking clouded by emotions. In neuroscience terms this would be helping teenagers develop their executive functions; abilities like planning ahead, impulse control, response inhibition and emotional regulation. The part of the brain dealing with these functions -the prefrontal cortex, is the last part of the brain to develop and continues its development into the 20’s. However even we much older adults struggle to identify our behaviours that are clouded by emotion, thus finding our “well differentiated self” is likely a journey rather than an end point.

Why they answer so logically, but do the most illogical things
By the time of late adolescence, the logical cognitive abilities of the brain are well formed. By now the adolescent’s capacity for abstract thinking is also developed. Unfettered by the illogicalities of real experiences, they are more logical than most adults, as many parents find out to their annoyance! However when it comes to behaviour, they still struggle, and do the most illogical of things. This may again be explained by a still developing prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain also helps with response-inhibition, or helps us to “think before we jump”.

Additionally, research shows that adolescent brains usually think more of the reward, and not the consequences. Thus, while avoiding an accident would be foremost in the mind of an adult, before gliding off of a cliff; a teenager might not think too much about consequences. For them the joy of flight and the thrill of the jump will be predominant in their minds.While this type of thinking is enough to give parents a heart attack, it may also be why young people have contributed so much to innovation and discovery. Again, giving them the strength to explore their world unfettered by our own anxieties, but also giving them the skills and providing unobtrusive oversight when needed, may be the way to help them develop. After all, we would want our adolescents to be something more than us, yet also survive to tell the tale!

Why do they find it so hard to wake up!
Why do they have this amazing ability to stay up late, but can never be woken up in time in the morning? Contrary to popular belief, adolescents are not naturally lazy, the evidence today points to the sleep wake-cycle of adolescents being differently tuned to that of adults. While adults tend to sleep less and wake up early, adolescents have their clock tuned so they fall asleep late, and wake up late. In short, they do really have a good alibi for being mostly night owls.

The good news, for adolescents and parents who look to wake up early, is that the sleep-wake cycle can be trained. One good example is the way this cycle adjusts (in just a couple of days) when travelling to different time zones.

One good idea to promote early sleep would be to reduce screen time (i.e. the use of any device with a screen like T.Vs, phones, computer, etc). While this may not be easy in this day and age where all devices seem to have screens, the reason is that the bright light of screens mimics daylight, and can convince your brain to stay awake (the same reason why people prefer to sleep in the dark).

Why smart phones and computers count among their best friends
Have you ever wondered how your teenager, who can only spend 10 minutes listening to you, can spend hours and hours staring at a screen playing, games? Well, it’s a given that it’s really hard work competing with a computer. The designers of computer software like games and social media applications are in a sense masters at understanding the adolescent mind.

The adolescent mind has a tendency to be pulled towards quick rewards, and computer games are designed so that the player is being rewarded or responded to, very quickly. In fact this happens from moment to moment. In a way, this is the same moment to moment reward/response that sustains an entertaining conversation that goes on for hours. However in a computer game the content might be quite different. For example the moment you shoot someone, vivid graphics illustrate your “kill” and you also get instant points for your efforts.

Strategy games meanwhile hold your attention for a bit longer. So, you build a castle now, to defend your land from an attack later on. While on the surface this may look like a good way to train your mind to think and plan for the future, in these games a future of a 100 years is condensed into an hour or so! Thus again, quick rewards keep the player glued to the game.

This is not to say that playing computer games is all bad, but maybe everything in moderation is best. Having limited times on the consoles and an agreement to terminate/ save the game at the end of this time, may be needed to prevent spending excessive time on games. A reminder close to the agreed end time maybe all that is needed to get ready to save the game and prevent a lot of virtual angst!

Finally, although psychology and the neurosciences point to certain similarities in the way that adolescents think and behave, they are also unique individuals, each on a different trajectory of development. Understanding their uniqueness, might be sometimes more important than understanding their similarities. It is also likely to be a journey of discovery for both adolescent and parent.

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