Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, comedian and science writer. He’s also a parent, whose children will one day inevitably transform, Kevin-like, into teenagers. That terrifying vision of the future might have been the inspiration behind his recent book, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It, which delves deep into the science of the teenage brain, and explains what is actually going on up there.
We spoke to him about what makes teens so emotional and why they won’t tidy their rooms in a recent episode of the Science Focus Podcast (which you can listen to in full below), but we also posed a few questions straight from the horse’s mouth, from unappreciated teens and beleaguered parents of teens. Here’s what he had to say:
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Josie, aged 17: Why do my parents do the same things they tell me not to do? For example, my mum says ‘don’t shout through the walls; you should actually come and speak to me face-to-face’ but she’s always shouting through the walls to me. What can she do?
That is a very good point. Parents can be completely inconsistent and a lot of time they don’t realise it. A parent’s life is full of things – duties, household chores, work – and they will slip sometimes. It’s a lot easier for them to just shout ‘Come here!’ rather than run up the stairs and speak to your face, and then come back down again. It’s inconsistent and they shouldn’t do that, but they do.
You see this a lot with things like smartphones. Parents tell their kids, ‘Oh, you can’t use that, that device is bad for you, stop using it at the table, it’s disgraceful’. But then they’re on theirs constantly. So what do you expect teenagers to do?
The whole ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ thing is an annoyance, especially for a teenager who is craving independence and respect and isn’t getting it.
What you can do about it? I would say point it out by calmly saying something like ‘You tell me not to scream through the walls, but you do it to me, so you can understand where I’m coming from. That’s not ideal.’ They might object to it, but I think most parents who care about being parents would logically say, ‘that’s a valid point.’
There’s a lot of conflict going on between a teenager and their parents, but a lot of studies show that the conflict is resolved a lot more when it turns into a dialogue.
If you can talk at a time when you’re both feeling a bit calmer, like just in the kitchen or doing something menial, then go in and say, ‘Can I just mention this, that you telling me not to do this, but you do it too.’ If you can approach it in a more calm, stress-free manner, then that’s hopefully something that most parents will respond positively to.
It shows you’re being mature about it as well. If you scream through the walls saying, ‘Stop screaming through the walls at me because…’ that’s probably counter-productive.
These things are valid concerns and valid points, and if you have a good relationship with your parents, or you want one, then you should be able to raise them in a calm, neutral manner.
I mean, I could be completely wrong about that; I don’t know your parents, they might fly off the handle completely, but it’s something which I think is worth pointing out, because parents want to be consistent, they should be told when they’re not.
Most parents want to be good parents and would like to find out how to do that. If it’s not a demanding thing and is a reasonable point of view, coming from the teenager themselves can be quite useful.
Well, I personally would think that was helpful, but again, each to their own.
Jenny, parent to four children between 10 and 18: I’ve been there, done it all, and I try to impart my knowledge and wisdom on them to help them, but they just don’t do what I say. Why is that?’
It’s probably because you’re their parent, and at this particular point in their life it’s not what they want to hear. It does seem to be an evolved mechanism for making sure humans, as a whole, don’t fall into the stale and static situations.
So, teens are rebellious because they want independence. They want the right to decide their own life, because having some sense of control is a big part of human identity. And to have someone tell you not to do that is frustrating.
One of the problems is that the part of your brain that processes reward, feelings of pleasure or things that make you happy, have matured pretty quickly. All the things that used to make you happy, like your childhood toys, or a family day to the funfair, are now sort of like trying to watch and old clip on a brand-new TV screen. It’s all muddy and blurred, and it’s not quite as good anymore.
And you need new, more exciting things now. Unfortunately, one of the most familiar things in a teen’s life is their parent, and so parents sort of go from being the centre of the Universe and main provider, to guardians or wardens that are a more restrictive force rather than an encouraging one. And so, because it’s the parent who is saying that, often that becomes a bit more suspect.
Teens don’t really crave their parents’ approval anymore. Instead they crave it from their peers and other people, and as a result, it’s harder for parents to impart information which seems to be controlling.
How to get around that? As ever, it’s something they grow out of. When you hit your mature adulthood, the impetuous part of your teens has faded away, and you sort of listen more to what your parents have said. So, you know, it’s a tricky situation.
And you know, imparting wisdom can often be perceived as being, ‘You shouldn’t do what you’re doing; you should do what I say,’ and that’s something which is going to be received with suspicion, and that’s unfortunate. But I guess you just keep plugging away, and hopefully something will sink in.
Dan, parent to two teenagers: When I was a teen, I often argued a point, and even if I knew I was wrong, I would carry on arguing it anyway. Why is this? And what can I do when I know my daughter is now doing the same?
It’s a really common thing, isn’t it? At some point, the argument itself becomes self-sustaining. The original focus of it isn’t actually relevant anymore. It’s like ‘I want this thing, you can’t have this thing’. You didn’t really want it that badly, but suddenly it becomes life or death.
I think it’s important to recognise that, as an adult, you can say no, I know I was wrong, however, when you’re a teen you don’t necessarily know that. It’s like the emotional response that you’re feeling is overwhelming the rational part of your still-developing mind. The emotions themselves are becoming the dominant force, and it’s really more about winning than anything to do with what the point was.
As a teenager you often feel trapped in your own home; you have no rights, you have no say in what goes on, and you often get a raw deal. For example, parents say things like, ‘You need to be more responsible; you need to do things your own way; clean up after yourself; you can provide for yourself; get a job’, but at the same time saying, ‘my house, my rules; do as you’re told; go to school; do these exams’. It’s like a worst-case scenario for the developing teen brain a lot of the time.
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Therefore, because it happens so rarely, any sort of victory or chance to assert some control over their own life becomes vitally important. That’s where you get huge arguments over things like who put the wet towel down on the floor and not back on the hook. Both parents and teens will probably admit that it’s not anything particularly crucial, it’s not like a wet towel on the floor is going to cause structural damage to the house or it will bring the whole floor down around us, but at this point it’s a matter of principle.
It’s an attempt to control and assert dominance, with the teen searching for some independence and a sense of control, and calm for the parent, which is what they were sort of used to when they were children. I know children are chaotic more so than teens, but at least they were the authority figure for most of the time.
I think a lot of the research suggests that with these arguments, it’s usually good to find something that you do agree on and end on that sort of note.
You don’t have to accept that you’re right or you’re wrong, but instead of arguing about some sort of outfit that the teen wants to wear, ideally, you would introduce something that you do both agree on. Say something like ‘at least it’s not as bad as Auntie Mabel’s outfit at the recent party. That was ridiculous.’ Then both of you can say yes, we can agree that it was a terrible outfit.
Injecting some sense of agreement, according to the research at least, seems to be a helpful way of both reducing arguments and maintaining a more solid relationship, because it’s not about right versus wrong. The idea that one of you must back down causes negative connections between parent and teen.
If you introduce some element of positivity where you do approve, or you do agree on, for example ‘I know you didn’t tidy your room, but you did do your homework, so well done for that,’ it can take the edge off to the point where it doesn’t become a serious problem. It is, according to what data I’ve seen.