Teen’s, your brains are undergoing big changes which can leave you frustrated, depressed and dealing with the results of poor choices. Your thinking brains are developing and beginning to make long-range plans and thoughtful choices easier. But, your feeling brains are also in overdrive struggling to incorporate your desires for acceptance, success and independence. Many of the struggles I’ve seen in my home and in other teens stem from the more automatic feeling brain taking control at the expense of the better planning thinking brain.
Here’s a short story and some comments to show you how to get what you want by using both types of thinking.
Zac, who is 16 and a new driver, was driving home from school one Friday afternoon reflecting on a frustrating day at school, but looking forward to hanging out with some friends on a short road trip to a nearby lake. He and his friends came up with the idea of a lake trip right after school, and it was just what he needed after a long week. When Zac arrived at his house, his mom reminded him about his promise to mow the lawn a couple of days ago, and said it was now his highest priority due to his parent’s dinner party at the house later that evening.
Zac told his mom he had extremely important and urgent plans, but she was unwilling to let the lawn go. When he pressed her about it, she raised her voice and reminded Zac if he had mowed the lawn when he was supposed to, he wouldn’t be in this situation. Zac became extremely agitated with his mom who refused to understand how important going to the lake was to him. When Zac emotionally outlined his plans in an attempt to change her mind, his mom said that in addition to the lawn needing care, she wasn’t comfortable with him driving his friends to the lake an hour from the house and outside of cell coverage. This just about pushed Zac over the edge. He had planned this event with his friends and everyone was ready to go. He was committed to seeing it through.
Zac screamed to his mother that she didn’t understand and was over-controlling. He added “I am a responsible person, and you treat me like a 12-year-old.” He slammed the door as he went outside to mow the lawn as quickly as possible. He knew the job done well would take about an hour—-far too long. His friends would leave without him. So, he decided to mow only the part that could be seen from the street. After all, why would his parents care about the grass nobody would see?
While mowing the lawn, all Zac could think about was being away from his house and parents, and enjoying time with his friends. If fact, he was so upset, he decided they should grab some beer on the way to take the edge off an increasingly stressful day. Wait, he thought to himself, she said I can’t drive to the lake. I’ll have to come up with some cover story so this will work out. I’ve been looking forward to hanging out with friends all day. She can’t take this away from me!
Fifteen minutes later, when a portion of the lawn was mowed, Zac stormed through the house grabbing a bag of chips and telling his mom “I hope you’re happy, you’ve ruined my weekend.” When she asked where he was going, Zac said “to Charlie’s house” and left. She thought about calling him back to discuss how badly he was acting, but she was behind in preparing for her dinner party. So, she decided to discuss it with him later.
Zac’s mom looked out the window to watch Zac leave and wondered how he could be so thoughtless and moody. Zac noticed his mom watching him depart wondering if she would call him back to the house and interrupt his plans. He also wondered how she could care more about how the lawn looked than his feelings. He absolutely couldn’t believe she would his driving to the lake as an excuse to ruin plans so important to him.
You can decide how the story might end, but you get how both Zac and his mom ended up using their feeling brains, and only began reengaging their thinking brains as they observed one another when Zac departed. Undoubtedly, there will be follow-on problems when Zac’s parents discover he didn’t finish mowing the lawn, and that he lied about where he was going—-less trust, less independence.
I would like to take the teen perspective and offer you some tricks to help prevent scenarios like the one Zac experienced. Let’s talk about how to design a scenario where Zac’s parents are excited for him to be spending time with friends who they know are good people doing activities they enjoy. Possibly even giving him gas and snack money to make the event more enjoyable.
Planning — Parents plan. They have to in order to succeed at work and keep the house running. They use their thinking brains most of the time. So, they don’t immediately understand how their teen son forgot about the lawn, especially after they mentioned it three times. They also don’t quite get the idea of planning a lake outing in a few minutes after school. Parents are not especially good at understanding and approving rapidly changing plans which seem poorly thought out and filled with risk. Here are a few steps you can take to have a better chance of getting your plans approved.
- Talk with your parents about things you would like to do in the future. If they are uncomfortable with parts of your plan, ask about their concerns and brainstorm ways you can mitigate them. In the example, the mom’s driving to the lake objection might have been handled by driving the route in advance with her, or having a more experienced friend do the driving. The cell phone objection might be handled by a friend having cell service in the area, or describing the exact location they would be visiting and exactly what time they would return. You’re effectively solving problems with your parents rather than trying to convince them. When the time comes to go to the lake, you’ll have already worked out most of the details without a feeling-brain time crunch that stokes parent’s concerns.
- Parents appreciate a track record of plans you’ve stuck to. Teen plans are usually continuously emerging as the group incorporates everyone’s desires and new ideas. But in the absence of communicating a new plan to parents, you create a lot of trust when you stick to a plan even though you might have to pass on some enticing options.
- Communicate your emerging plans to parents early. In the example, time pressure pushed Zac toward short-term, sub-optimal solutions that probably caused him some long-term problems. If Zac had been able to communicate his plans to his mom earlier, they both would have had more time to think of workable solutions.
- If a plan is falling apart, you might want to consider starting over. Sometimes plans just can’t be salvaged. If you’re fighting with your friends, can’t agree on what to do in changing conditions or realize your situation is very different from what you discussed with your parents, you should realize parents will view this as you choosing to do something other than what you agreed upon.
Honor commitments — In the example, Zac had promised to mow the lawn on Wednesday. If he had honored that commitment, he would have avoided the primary problem, had a better discussion with his mom and probably left for the lake feeling better. Mowing the lawn is probably not a chore he looks forward to. So putting it off is easy to do. It may also be difficult to track chores more than a day in the future. You can use some tricks to help remember. You might set a reminder or an alarm on your phone. You might ask your parents to remind you on Thursday afternoon of any chores you have to accomplish before they interrupt weekend plans. If your commitment can be easily handled in the moment, just knock it out so you don’t have the risk of forgetting—-taking out the garbage is a good example. If a task requires remembering, set some sort of reminder. Even your thinking brain loses track of deadlines.
Keep your feeling brain in check — This is very hard to do at first. We all get upset when things don’t go our way. Despite your best planning and honoring of commitments, you will eventually get into a situation where your feeling mind jacks you up! You’ll begin getting frustrated, angry or emotional about something with someone you’re in conflict with. One technique to interrupting this is to come up with a phrase you might say in such a situation. Mine is “this isn’t going well”. When I’m feeling agitated, I think of that phrase. Sometimes I actually say it out loud. It helps my thinking brain get back to work. But with emotions high, your thinking brain has a pretty small voice. Maybe just strong enough to say “I’m getting agitated. Could I take a few minutes to collect my thoughts, then discuss this with you?” While you’re taking a break, refocus your thoughts away from yourself and onto the person you’re in conflict with. Try to figure out what their concerns are, and how you could acknowledge and address them while achieving your goals at the same time. If you’re able to do this, you will have put your thinking brain back in charge, while honoring your own feelings.
Zac might have gotten better results from this type of response to his mom:
Mom, I’m getting super frustrated about this. Can I take a few minutes to collect my thoughts so we can discuss this without fighting?
Then, after a few minutes of collecting his thoughts:
Mom, I’m sorry. I completely forgot about mowing the lawn. I should have set a reminder, and I realize it’s important to you. I also understand this plan is a little more adventurous than normal. But people my age don’t normally plan very far ahead, and I don’t want to miss spending time with my friends on a great adventure if at all possible. I would like to drive, but Charlie has a year more experience and a phone that works at the lake. Could I take care of the front lawn today so it looks good for your party, and finish the rest tomorrow morning? Then, after the front lawn looks good, drive to the lake with my friends? Or, if you’re especially worried about my driving, ride with Charlie? We’ll be home by 10pm.
This is a compelling recovery, likely to succeed in helping everyone get what they want. Mom will be happy the lawn looks good, feel good her concerns were understood and addressed, and be happy about having an agreeable interaction with her son. Zac will probably get to do what he wants with some support (and hopefully a little money) from his mom.
Learn to deal with No — Being a teenager is a marathon—for you and your parents. You want to win the war for independence which means you can’t win every battle over what you want to do. Thoughtful parents who normally encourage independence will occasionally say no to something despite your excellent planning, thoughtful arguments and wise-minded demeanor. They may think the risks are too high, or have some other objections they simply can’t get past. Since it’s unlikely you’re going to get what you want by pressuring your parents, you can begin laying the groundwork for a better outcome next time you ask. You can dramatically improve your life and future outcomes by using phrases like: “I don’t agree with your conclusion, but I can tell you’ve considered what I have to say and made up your mind. Could we discuss how I can earn your trust to do this at some future time?” Honestly saying that to parents will increase their respect and trust in you.
The best way to feel better about not getting to do exactly you want is quickly shifting to an alternate plan that is workable. Your parents will likely feel badly that you’re not getting to do what you really want, and be receptive to alternate plans that don’t include their primary objections.
Dishonesty and ignoring limits is a direct path to less independence — You are old enough to have strong opinions, and may decide to do what you want despite your parent’s guidelines. Your immediate need for independence ignites rebellion. This creates distrust and parental feelings of needing to protect you by paying more attention to your actions, and being more involved in your plans. Trust takes a pretty long time to build, but can disappear in an instant. This path is filled with less independence and a lot more frustration for everyone. You are almost guaranteed to get less of what you want—-not recommended!
When you find yourself getting frustrated, remember you can use your thinking brain to speak to your parents in a language they understand, and get more of what you want with less negative emotion, more trust and more independence.