‘Love is indeed the most real, potent aspect of parenting. And, in parenting, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” says Michael Bradley, Ed.D, about the core premise of his work with children. Bradley, a psychologist who works with children, adolescents, and their families in treatment settings ranging from jails to social service agencies to private practice, is the author of “Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy” (Harbor Press, 2003). He speaks on Thursday, October 25, 7 to 9 p.m., at Grover Middle School, 10 Southfield Road, West Windsor. For information call 609-716-5250.
Bradley, who grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from LaSalle College on a military scholarship and briefly served as an officer in the U.S. Army. While in law school he supported himself with a temporary job counseling troubled adolescents in an inner city Philadelphia high school. To his amazement, he developed a passionate interest in his new sideline job and switched to graduate studies in psychology, ultimately earning a doctorate from Temple University.
An expert on adolescent behavior, Bradley is frequently quoted in the press and has appeared on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the Today Show, CNN World News Tonight, and National Public Radio. He lives with his family, including a teenage son, in suburban Philadelphia.
Following is an excerpt from his book, “Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy,” which is founded on new brain research that confirms what some parents may have suspected all along — that adolescents are temporarily brain-damaged. Through case studies and frank strategies, Bradley shows readers “how that misfiring brain interacts with the dangerous world we’ve built around your temporarily disabled child.”
by Michael Bradley
You may have recently lost your sense of humor regarding your kid, so here’s a travel-worn “more truth than humor” story that psychologists have told for years:
Parent: “I want you to evaluate my 13-year-old son.”
Doctor: “OK. He’s suffering from a transient psychosis with an intermittent rage disorder, punctuated by episodic radical mood swings, but his prognosis is good for a full recovery.”
Parent: “What does all that mean?”
Doctor: “He’s 13.”
Parent: “How can you say all that without even meeting him?”
Doctor: “He’s 13.”
Who would have thought this tired old joke would turn out to be a dead-on prophecy? Up until now, psychologists had a lot of great-sounding theories to explain why adolescents tend to act so crazy at times. We believed that all that risk-taking, judgment-impaired, aggressive, and oppositional behavior was a function of early childhood experiences, peer pressure, the hormonal effects of puberty, and, most hurtful of all for too many mothers and fathers, poor parenting. No one thought that massive structural changes in teenagers’ brains were largely to blame. We had no clue that their brains were changing.
The textbooks now being used state that brain development races in early childhood, and then calms to a slow but steady pace toward adulthood. Based on studies of brain volume, or size, science tells us that 95 percent of the brain develops in a child by about age five.
From this fact came all of the popular and now useless thinking that the first few years of life were the most critical for your kid — that in early childhood her skills, personality, and everything else get fixed in place, or “hard-wired,” as researchers like to say. Up until now, we believed that after those “critical” early years, changing those hard-wired brain components was either difficult or impossible. That’s why in the movies the psychologist always says, “So tell me about Johnny’s early childhood.”
But our science was terribly flawed. While it is true that 95 percent of the brain is developed by age five, the most advanced parts of the brain don’t complete their development until adolescence is pretty much over.
Recent ground-breaking studies have come together to blow apart our old view of the adolescent brain and provide us with astonishing insights into your kid’s head that offer explanations for crazy teen behavior and revolutionize our thinking about how to best help our children survive these difficult times.
Starting in 1991, Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), started taking pictures of kids’ brains over a nine-year span. He was curious to know to what extent children’s crazy behavior is willful, and to what extent it is beyond their control. He and his colleagues at UCLA and McGill University in Canada used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study exactly how a child’s brain grows from ages 3 to 18. They studied almost 1,000 “normal” kids (including two of Dr. Giedd’s children) at intervals ranging from two weeks to four years. What they found was nothing short of astonishing, and it completely rewrote our understanding of the adolescent brain.
First, contrary to previous thinking that the brain is completely developed by age five, they saw that throughout the teen years and into the 20s, substantial growth occurs in a brain structure called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a set of nerves that connects all the parts of the brain that must work together to function efficiently, as in making good decisions. This set of “wires” is critical to things like intelligence, consciousness, and self-awareness. This initial finding was revolutionary enough, but these researchers weren’t finished.
With amazement, they also found that the prefrontal cortex of the brain goes through a wild growth spurt that coincides with the onset of adolescence. In fact, they found that this part of the brain does the bulk of its maturation between the ages of 12 and 20. The prefrontal cortex is where the most sophisticated of our abilities reside. Emotional control, impulse restraint, and rational decision-making are all gifts to us from our prefrontal cortex, gifts your kid hasn’t yet received. Perhaps Dr. Karl Pribram, director of the Center for Brain Research and Informational Sciences at Radford University in Virginia, described it best when he said, “The prefrontal cortex is the seat of civilization.”
So what do these studies offer you? Well, we have good news and bad news.
The good news is that positive things such as sports, music, school achievement, responsibility, and social consciousness can be hard-wired into that expanding adolescent brain. You may owe God, Mother Nature, fate, or whomever you choose a nice dinner out because he, she, or it designed your child to get a second chance at life. All of that new growth in the prefrontal cortex is available for use by your kid. The old view that there is little room for change in your child by the time he is a teen is wrong.
The bad news is that you may want to curse God, Mother Nature, or fate because this second-chance brain programming can be used toward negative things, too. If the teen years are filled with rage, dysfunction, and alienation, they may be “set in stone” in our kids’ heads. The old thinking that the brain game is over by age five is wrong. The most critical years for your young adolescent are likely yet to be.
The good and bad news is that, first, this wild brain development may create new, unpredictable thought pathways, wherein action thoughts can outrace judgment capabilities just as they did in early childhood. Second, teens may be neurologically handicapped in recognizing and processing social emotions such as anger and fear. This is bad news since it shows the monumental obstacles confronting our adolescents as they try to grow up. The good part is that these behaviors are not character flaws or signs of an evil nature. In adolescent children, the maddening behavior is just the result of mixed-up wiring that will straighten out in time if, if, and only if we adults respond not with raging, hurtful punishments, but with carefully crafted responses intended to calmly but firmly teach brain-challenged children to become functional adults.
Remember 12 years ago when your teen was a toddler and you walked in to find him sitting in the cat box munching on some very scary litter? Remember last week when your teen used the pressure washer to clean your car, stripping off about $500 worth of paint before she realized this was not such a good idea? Do the words impulsive and poor judgment come to mind? Can you draw that two-year-old face onto that 12-year-old body?
Learn this trick well, because we’re going to use it a lot. Both that toddler and adolescent brain at times are unstable, dysfunctional, and completely unpredictable. They both have just developed a bunch of brain circuits that may fire off unexpectedly. Also, they both have neurologically deficient controls to moderate these impulses and to understand the likely outcomes of their actions. In the science of mental health, we have a word for that. We call it crazy.
This book is going to answer the question that is probably running through your head right now: So what can I do as a parent to get this brain-challenged teen through to adulthood alive, functional, and, dare I say, happy? First, though, let’s point out some evidence that whoever designed teenagers certainly had a sense of humor.
Mother Nature’s timing of this adolescent brain growth is either lousy or great depending on the day you’ve had with your kid. On the positive side, his impulsiveness and risk-taking are critical to his growing up and becoming his own person. This will ultimately help form the adult personality needed to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. The negative side is that his brain is going wild just as he’s seeing himself as an adult, deserving of all the grown-up privileges of autonomy, independent decision-making, and self-regulation.
Reinforcement: A Tricky Tool
Most parents don’t really understand what reinforcement is, thanks to a misuse of the terminology. Reinforcement means anything that promotes a specific behavior, causing it to become stronger and occur more often. If a pigeon pecks at a lever and a food pellet appears, the pigeon’s brain associates that pecking movement with food. If you, as the behavior-shaper, associate that movement with food enough times, the pigeon’s brain thinks that pecking at a lever is a cool thing to do, and hard-wires that behavior into the brain as a circuit, or a feature of personality. Once it gets hard-wired, it’s written into that brain and you’ll see that behavior over and over again. Getting rid of a hard-wired behavior can be tough.
There are a few other things you ought to know about this neurological wiring that largely determines who your child will become.
First adolescents crave brain stimulation like they crave Big Macs. They constantly seek out stimulation. They can’t stand no brain action (“God I’m sooooo bored!”), so they’re always stirring the pot to make things happen, to get that hit of brain activity, often acting on very crazy impulses with no apparent logic other than firing off new brain circuits.
A second point is that kids are like publicists who say there is no good or bad publicity, there’s just publicity. Many teens often don’t seem to distinguish between good (nice) stimulation and bad (mean) stimulation; they just need the action. They’ll go for the rewards if they can, but they’ll often switch off to the punishments as long as that developing brain is getting its dose of activity. Have you had that punishment war of attrition yet with your kid, to the point where he’s grounded until February 3, 2018? This neurology is part of why he keeps provoking you and getting extended punishments. He needs the brain action, and the punishment is more easily accessed at the moment.
Third, you need to know about critical behavior-shaping tools such as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and your ace in the hole, extinction. These will be important weapons in your battle against adolescent insanity. If you don’t understand the science behind the strategies, then trying to do what I’ll be training you to do in the face of problems like teen rage may become impossible for you. You’ll have to understand how this works in order to have the faith you will need when situations with your child get hot. So please bear with me here as we get a bit technical.
Both positive and negative reinforcement have to do with strengthening a specific behavior, not getting rid of it. When that pigeon pecked at a lever and got food, it decided to peck some more. That was an example of positive reinforcement — you provide something that causes the behavior to occur again. Negative reinforcement is when something is withdrawn that also causes the behavior to occur. You could blast that poor pigeon with a rap CD at full volume and scare the pigeon poop out of it, and then any time the pigeon pecked at a lever, you’d turn off the loud noise for a minute (and maybe offer it a soothing Charlie Parker ballad instead). Turning off that rap music (music?) would cause the pigeon to learn to peck at the lever a lot. Negative reinforcement often gets confused with punishment. Note that negative reinforcement is withdrawing a pre-existing undesirable element in the pigeon’s environment in order to get the bird to do something.
Punishment is entirely different. Punishment does not promote or strengthen any behavior. It is intended only to stop a specific activity. It does not cause any other behavior to occur. In parenting words, you could say that punishment doesn’t teach anything except to not do something. The biggest problem with punishment is that while it initially provides the illusion of working to shape behavior in a good way, it actually spins off all sorts of brain reactions that can come back to haunt you in other, and often worse, forms of bad behaviors. What you might consider to be punishments can actually be weird kinds of rewards to your kid, which is how you ended up grounding him until February 3, 2018. Here’s how it works.
The incredible, critical, and rarely believed fact is that being hurtful to your kid can be a positive reinforcer, making the rotten behavior occur more frequently, not less. Screaming at a child is used by many parents as a punishment (a mean response intended to stop a behavior), but screaming at your kid for insulting you can actually stimulate that temporarily weird brain in all sorts of reinforcing ways, like getting your undivided attention and controlling your behavior (I call this running you around the room).
Thus you can actually link your kid’s insulting behavior to brain stimulation, encouraging the disrespect to occur again. Putting your purple, raging, spitting face in his gets all kinds of adolescent brain circuits firing off. Your yelling can become very addicting to your child. Parental rage can become positive reinforcement, as can snide, demeaning comments. In the world of developing brains, what we think is very negative can be very positive to an adolescent brain. And very bad.
Changing these behavior patterns between you and your child can be the toughest task you’ll ever attempt. Did I mention that this training stuff is as difficult to do as learning to play the violin? I was not kidding.
Respect Is Critical
Virtually every piece of research confirms that teenagers who respect their parents have a much greater chance of surviving adolescence with only a few scrapes. When kids are young, you can get by using their fear or their extreme dependence on you. In adolescence, you must have their respect. In describing competent parents of adolescents we keep coming back to a maddeningly vague definition: They maintain an elusive balance of firmness and nurturing. They have the respect of their kids. But what exactly creates respect?
If I could bottle it, I’d be on Oprah. If I could define it, I’d be on the Supreme Court. Like pornography, it’s much easier to spot than to define, let alone teach. I can see it when it walks into my office with some families. I can also see the black hole it leaves when it’s missing, sucking up all of the warmth, love, and hope in a family.
How do I summarize what earns the respect of adolescents? It has to do with upward-looking admiration. They must see you as something better than they are. They prize people who “walk the walk,” who honor their commitments 24 hours a day, seven days a week, especially when the going gets rough. Perhaps most important, teens respect adults who calmly understand and forgive shortcomings in others less competent than themselves — like their children.
How do I summarize the respect-destroying list? Anger, hypocrisy, and selfishness. Unleashing our rage, pretending to be something we’re not, and placing our own needs first are toxins to parental respect.
When your kid respects you, you’re home free in the parenting game, because if your child admires you, she’ll want to copy (model) who you are and earn your approval. She will largely incorporate your values and morals as her own. This is what we call inoculating kids against insanity versus policing them. In parenting teenagers, earning their respect is the key to a calmer adolescence. Rigidly controlling their behavior sets up a jailbreak.
Imprisoning kids with anger and control doesn’t work. In addition to the reasons I’ve given so far, add this one: As they reach these years of teenage insanity, you can no longer physically make them do things they don’t want to do.
The terrible fact is that you lose all your power with your child if the primary components of your relationship are fear and control. She will get faster, stronger, and be willing to be a lot crazier than you. There’s a storm coming. You haven’t shown her anything except how to behave as long as you’re around, and as long as you still hold the title as the No. 1 controller in the house. Once she’s away from you, or once you lose your jab, it’s jail-break time. Your kid will have no defense against all that craziness out there calling to her because you didn’t help her develop a set of values and decision-making skills. You just ordered her around.
If fear and anger are what you’ve taught your kids so far, get yourself to a shrink now. The good news is that Mother Nature anticipated our parenting failures and gave us a second chance to reprogram out kids in adolescence. But this is likely the last train. Don’t miss it.