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/ Sep 04, 2018

Refuting the Myth of Teen Invulnerability

Parents

Avoid Myths About Teen Invulnerability

Adolescence is an age of tremendous potential and opportunity. But children at this stage are still needing help. Young people do best when caring, loving adults serve as active guides and worthy role models. However, we will only fill this role when these critical pieces are in place. We must:

  • Know that what we do matters
  • Have the skill-sets to successfully engage youth
  • Put strategies in place to effectively guide teens to become their best selves

Unfortunately, there are many all-too-familiar myths about adolescents that are damaging to our relationships and to our teens’ well-being. At the least, these myths discourage parents from taking an active role in shaping young people’s lives. Don’t fall victim to the notion that teens are no longer needing help.

One dangerous myth is, “These kids nowadays, they think they’re invulnerable.” This myth of invulnerability disempowers parents. Why? Because the thought that too often follows is something like, “You can’t talk any sense into them.”

If we believe that young people see themselves as invulnerable, we may mistakenly toss efforts to reason with them aside. Instead, we limit ourselves to just restricting them. After all, it would be futile to prepare our kids to make wise, thoughtful decisions if we assume they can’t imagine bad things happening to them. Controlling them could appear to be the only means left to protect them. But being overly controlling typically backfires badly because it pushes them into rebellion. It fuels the very behaviors we fear.

Or worse, we assume we have no real influence so we don’t even try to guide them. We choose instead to close our eyes, hold our collective breath and hope for the best. Feeling powerless, we view adolescence as a time to be survived.

Understanding where these myths come from can empower us to reject them and help us recognize how much of a difference adults can make in the lives of young people.

Don’t Fall Prey

A first step to knowing that what we do matters is understanding that teens do not believe they are invulnerable. In fact, in many cases they worry more than adults.

This myth was not spun out of malice. It gained traction because it reflected a degree of truth based on some adolescent behaviors. Teens do sometimes behave as though they think they are invulnerable, but that is very different from actually believing that they are.

Let’s explore the reasons why some teen behaviors reinforce this widespread misunderstanding. Once we understand that these behaviors are our teens attempt to meet the challenges of development, our critical role as guides becomes even clearer.

Discussion Tip
Teens sometimes act as though they see themselves as invulnerable, but they actually don’t believe they are.
“As parents, our role is to set boundaries that allow our children to test their own limits safely.”

Adolescence is a Time of Exploration

Why Teens Must Take Risks

The fundamental question of adolescence is, “Who am I?”. Answering that question involves trying out a lot of possibilities. It must involve discovering one’s potential, which in turn means testing limits. Furthermore, the teen years are partially about preparing to leave the family home. That is a huge developmental step — among the largest ‘risks’ a person takes in their lifetime. Preparing for that huge leap of faith involves taking smaller risks.

Adolescents are super learners. Their brains are wired to learn far more efficiently than they will in adulthood. The teen years, therefore, have to offer as many experiences as possible. These experiences are precisely how young people gain the wisdom and knowledge they will draw from throughout their lives. As they seek these experiences (as they must!), they may wander outside of our comfort zones.

What Parents Can Do

Parents must allow for new opportunities and learning within healthy, safe and moral boundaries. We should encourage stretching of those limits. Our role is to set boundaries that allow our children to test their own limits safely. This offers teens a deep-seated sense of security, even though they  may pretend to be offended by our monitoring. If we hover or make rules too restrictive, we will drive them away. Instead, set clear, consistent rules when it comes to issues that may compromise safety or morality. But allow for flexibility and room for negotiation to respect  a teen’s growing independence.

Adolescent Brains are Wired to Process Emotions Before Reason

Why Teens Feel Such Intense Emotions

Different parts of the brain develop at different rates. A primitive part of the brain is the amygdala. The amygdala signals danger and processes emotions. It develops very rapidly during adolescence. That partly explains why teens feel so intensely and passionately. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex located in the front of the brain, isn’t fully developed until the mid-20’s. This is the part of the brain that controls reasoning and self-regulation.

Their intense passion and fluctuating emotions are NOT due to immaturity. In fact, they are a sign that the emotional centers of the brain critical to both survival and flourishing in relationships, are developing rapidly. The reasoning part of the brain is also maturing — just at a pace that lags behind the emotional centers. They don’t lack the capacity to reason. It’s just that in circumstances when emotions are high, their reasoning is at a temporary disadvantage.

One other critical point. The part of teen brains wired for pleasure — the reward center — is particularly excitable. This makes adolescents vulnerable to influences that offer immediate pleasurable results. This can set teens up to repeat unwise — but fun — behaviors.

What You Can Do

The reality is teens actually overestimate risk compared to adults. This suggests that teens are feeling more vulnerable than they might show. They may need guidance and support from parents to help them make the right decisions, and even to stay calm.

We must honor the brains our children have and recognize the intelligence they possess. The fact that their emotions sometimes are more palpable than their ability to reason does NOT mean they lack the capacity for reason. It means we need to work with them in calm settings to build their knowledge and skills to navigate their world successfully. We should prepare them to think through solutions. We must recognize that in times of stress or pleasure, rational thought goes out the window. (This is also true for adults!) We must do our best to create boundaries that keep teens from ending up in highly emotional, dangerous settings. It’s impossible to predict every dangerous situation. But we can have a clear safety plan in place. One that let’s our teens know we’re just a call or text away.

Fitting in with Friends is Critical

Why Teens are Influenced by Peers

Questions that accompany, “Who am I?” include, “Am I normal?” and “Do I fit in?” These questions take on great importance to our teens. So much so, that sometimes they’ll do things in an attempt to look like, act like or impress their peers. Those things may make us want to pull our hair out. Though frustrating to witness, this is a critical developmental phase towards readying oneself for long term, healthy relationships. Think about it. You have to learn what kind of people make you happy, drive you crazy and who ultimately you’ll rely on, before you settle on a life partner.

What You Can Do

As a parent you play an important role in helping teens navigate decisions when they are feeling pressured to “be normal” or “fit in.” Parents can help teens to make healthy decisions when it comes to peer relationships. Peer relationships are full of pushes and pulls. One day you’re in, the next you’re out. We cannot protect our children entirely from the harsh reality of this aspect of growing up. We can, however, encourage them to find peers in varied settings so that they are not left alone as relationships ebb and flow. We can also prepare them to navigate peer relationships so they can both “fit in” and maintain their own values.

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Setting Boundaries

Adolescence is a time to test limits. Parents should set boundaries that permit exploration, but that also keep children safe. Click through to discover ways you can effectively create limits for teens.

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Love

Begin by reminding teens how much they are loved. When children know parents are on their side, they are less likely to feel as though you’re out to stop them from having fun and more likely to understand you’re preparing them for a successful future.

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Explain

Point out that rules are a fact of life for everyone. Doing so helps teens understand living within certain limits is a normal part of life.

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Communicate

Make expectations clear. Talk with teens when emotions aren’t running high. Review established limits as well as the consequences of ignoring them.

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Be Consistent

Young people should be aware that boundaries for keeping them safe won’t change. Other limits are flexible, expanding as they demonstrate trustworthiness.

Sometimes People Who Care Intensely Pretend They Do Not Care at All

Why Teens Act Like They Don’t Care

For teens with emotions close to the surface, it can be hard to admit how deeply they care. They may shut down when they are most worried, embarrassed, or concerned they might have disappointed you. This looks like they don’t care but in fact, the opposite is true. They may be doing such a good job of convincing themselves they are not worried, that the outside observer (you!) will be shocked by their seeming indifference.

What You Can Do

The power of a parent’s love is an important buffer when teens are feeling this way. If teens believe that only certain behaviors please you, they’ll learn to withdraw when they stray from that behavior. They’ll quickly “turn off” in your presence so you won’t catch that they’ve done something to disappoint you. But most of this isn’t about us. It’s about peers, school and all the other relationships they’re navigating. They worry about the future (and present). It can be too much. They choose to shut down as a reasonable strategy to contain emotions – at least for a while. But knowing they’re loved gives them a constant protection in a life full of uncertainty.

Important Reminders

  • Raise your children to know that no emotion is wrong. Help them understand the forces that drive emotions.
  • Remember that development has its own pace…and teens should, ultimately, drive their own growth.
  • Be available so that when your teens choose to open up, you are there for guidance. This is undoubtedly one of the great inconveniences of parenting adolescents. Teens just don’t process their emotions at times convenient to us.
  • Never assume that your children don’t care. Never assume laziness. Don’t believe the myth of invulnerability. As long as you know the truth – that adolescents have rich inner lives and care deeply – your presence will clearly transmit that you are open to hearing the truth. It is not that they don’t care, it is that they care so much it hurts.

Young People Do Care

Adolescents care a lot! They need (and want) our involvement in their lives! When you understand these points, it becomes clear that teens are listening and hoping for your input. Adults are in a position to connect with youth and effectively guide them to become their best selves.

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Ken Ginsburg

Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Co-Founder and Director of Programs at the CPTC, and a Professor of Pediatrics and adolescent medicine specialist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books as well as a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” The CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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