Stages of Life

Wired for Good

I remember my teen years pretty well. There was quite a lot happening internally. While I struggled with finding my voice, and grappled with knowing who I was and what I wanted, it was also when I discovered Kabbalah and began a course of study that would alter the trajectory of my life. I experienced a lot of pain in my teens. But, I also tapped into some deep healing.

And as the mother of three teenagers, I’m getting a front row seat to this special time all over again. It is a time of extremes – of pushing boundaries, defining and redefining the self, and radical exploration. I’m going to be unflinchingly honest right now (what else is new): it is frequently challenging. I want to support my children as they experiment with who they are and who they want to become, but I also want to direct and protect them in these experiments. 

When my kids were small, a friend looked at my pained expression as I fed one baby while trying to soothe another, and said, “This is nothing. Just wait until they are teenagers. It gets worse.” Worse? I was so sleep deprived, I was having hallucinations. I was nursing Miriam, tending to one-year-old Josh, all while trying to keep track of a very active four-year-old David. At the time I thought, Seriously, how could it be this hard?!

Now I’m doing it. I’m the mama of four – three of whom are adolescents. (Did you know the adolescent years span from age ten to 24? The end is not near! No one speaks of this. I thought it was 13-19 years old max.) And yes, it’s tough being the parent of teenagers. But, in a lot of ways it’s actually harder for them. Their bodies are rapidly changing, leaving them feeling like strangers in their own skin. They are constantly searching for ways to assert their individuality and separate from their parents, while the pressure to conform and fit in is at its height. In addition, their brains are rapidly developing – our brains keep on growing through adolescence, even into our thirties. With so much change happening within their bodies and social circles, it’s no wonder that typical teen behavior is seen as impulsive, erratic, self-conscious, and demanding.

NPR correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston spent over a year interviewing teens in an effort to better understand the dramatic (and sometimes detrimental) choices they make. What she found was that the same things that prompt extreme behavior in adolescents (namely, risk-taking) are the very qualities that leave them primed for positive action. Researchers believe these tendencies are born in the insula, an area of the brain that is working overtime in adolescents.

According to UCLA neuro-biologist Daniel Siegel, “The insula feeds into an area where self-awareness is generated, which is right next to an area for ‘other’ awareness. These are the neuro-biological paths of empathy. And amazingly, even morality is mediated in an adjacent area, as well. So, as you gain a sense of what’s going on in someone else and what’s going on in yourself, you also have a sense of being a part of a larger whole.” 

Temple-Raston points out that this hyperactivity in the insula leads teens to feel extreme empathy – the kind that urges teens to speak out against the things they see as unfair or unjust. For parents, their teens’ passionate overnight concern with the plight of North American owls, for instance, can seem hyperbolic. But, if we look at it from a different angle, it’s the kind of behavior that can spark positive change in the world. Malala Yousafzai was only 15 years old when she was shot for being an activist for gender equality in education. Claudette Colvin was also 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus – nine months before Rosa Parks was famously arrested for doing the same. And, Canadian, Capri Everitt traveled to 80 countries with her family to raise money for orphaned and abandoned children by singing the national anthem in each country’s native language.

Temple-Raston says, “If you think about that, it completely turns on its head this idea of adolescence being something you just have to get through. Adolescence is, in fact, this amazing process that turns you into a better, maybe more wholesome, more spiritually aware, more giving adult, if you manage that adolescence in the right way.” What are often thought of as flaws in the adolescent brain are actually gifts that offer teens significant potential for good.

In sum, parents can learn a thing or two from their world-changing activist teens.

My teacher and mentor, Rav Berg, often declared that our children would be the ones wise, strong, and brave enough to create the change for which we’ve been longing. What teens need is our support and gentle guidance as they rise up for the causes that pull on their hearts. One child refuses to eat meat at a family dinner. Another goes on a recycling rampage, admonishing any household member negligent enough to throw recycling in the wrong bin. Equality, social justice, environmental activism, and reformations on every level speak to teens at a deep level during this phase of brain development.

If we laugh off their “bleeding hearts” as a phase or an emotional whim, we miss an important opportunity to reinforce their natural longing to do good and create lasting change in the world. They need us to validate their desire to speak out, so they will grow up to be adults who continue to be great channels of Light for the world. Listen to your teens, support them, and perhaps they will be the ones to guide you toward more positive action.

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