Confessions of a Teenaged Bitch

6 years ago

I have this friend -- we'll call her "Lisa" -- who has a teenaged son. She told me the teenaged-ness had come on very suddenly, and she was, in a word, maddened by the shift from a child with whom she'd previously had a mindmeld relationship to one whom she barely recognized.

Not having experienced this yet with my own child, who is six, I told Lisa the feedback I've received thus far about the fifteen-year-old protagonist in my working novel. It has been, um, negative. As though I'd created an unsympathetic heroine. As though teenagers could actually get mad at their parents for being alive and human beings with their own wants and needs. An unreliable narrator, if you will.

"In other words," she said, "you created ... a teenager."


I saw a show or read an article that said during the teen years the reptilian brain and the frontal lobe have trouble communicating.

I blame the feelings of immortality of teenagers on the fact that their frontal lobes are not fully working. The reason the frontal lobes are not fully engaged is because they have not yet completed the process of neuronal myelination. Think of myelination as the insulation on the electrical wires inside your house. Without myelination in the brain, electrical signals from neurons fail to reach their destination. The parts of our brains that myelinate last are also the parts that evolved most recently. These parts include our frontal lobes, which contribute most to our unique personalities and allow us to anticipate the consequences of our actions.

Ahem. I see this as a real problem, as my existential psychology therapist (who made me read this book) often tells me, it is human nature to want to dominate everyone around us. Not bad, not good, not moral, not immoral, but as human and natural as the instinct to mate or eat or be warm or cool as the elements dictate. Fortunately for us, we also have a frontal lobe that controls feeling and compassion, reason, friendship and logic. If we didn't have access to that frontal lobe, we might behave in ways that serve only our need to dominate, eat, sleep and procreate -- without regard to how it makes other people feel.

Sort of like teenagers.

Then I told Lisa about an article I read in the The New York Times about exotic animal training.

I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

So ... if you want to change a person's behavior, you should act as you would with a tiger. Tigers don't really respond to reason -- and this, often, is the case with humans. Oh, sure, we think we're making decisions based on reason, but it's really emotion. I give you the iPhone serviced only by AT&T.

Tigers respond to food. If you try to dominate the tiger, she will eat you. People can be like that -- if you directly confront someone's instinctual urge to dominate by overtly trying to dominate them, it could end badly. Tiger = lunch. Teenager = three-hour screamfest at 3 a.m., emotional exhaustion and the inability to function the next day. (The teenager will prep for the next fight.)

What to do? The exotic animal trainer said to completely ignore unwanted behavior and lavishly praise good behavior. If the child is late on curfew, not a word. But curfew is shortened incrementally the next time until you're satisfied you've gotten the point across. Lavish praise! Privileges reinstated.

I haven't had the chance to test this theory on my own child yet, because she is six. However, I remember the total and complete hell on wheels I was as a teenager, which led to my unsympathetic novel narrator.

I know when I was a teenager, I needed to be right, be smarter, better faster than my parents at all times. Even if I knew they were right, to admit it would be the death of my ego. So I'd argue and yell and try to hurt them just because they were there. Frontal lobe, see you at 28.

I suppose part of this process is designed not only to prepare teenagers to fend for themselves in the world but also to guarantee their parents want nothing to do with them by the time they should really get their own apartments.

Until then, I told Lisa she should definitely avoid eye contact.

(Ed. Note: I give you all permission to e-mail me this post when my daughter turns 13.)

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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