Raising Teens, Part 3:  Compassion and Empathy

This series was first published in the Island Word in July, 2012.

The teenage boy is trying very hard to project his new bad-ass image. He folds his arms, slumps and glares from beneath the flat-brimmed cap with the logo that is rumoured to be gang-associated. Two years ago he was a Lego kid; now his facebook page declares that he loves weed and collects switchblades. He earnestly tells the therapist how much he wants to beat up some poor kid with ADHD that “everybody hates” at school because the kid’s a “loser” and he thinks he’d be a hero for “taking [the loser ADHD kid] out.” This, the young client insists, would help his self esteem and win him the respect he craves.

What, the therapist wonders, am I supposed to do here?

Not that we are powerless, as parents or as therapists. But it’s time to admit two things: 1) Brute force, if it ever worked, isn’t going to work anymore, and 2) We are only half, at best, of the equation (more like 20%, actually). We share influence with school, peer culture, electronic and mass media, hormonally-driven attractions (remember those, you parents? Weren’t they amazing while they lasted?), and, most powerfully, the desires and the decisions of our kids themselves.

Compliance from teens is given voluntarily or not at all. Where nature whispers to the child, “you need these parents, so be good and make them want to love you,” it whispers to the teen, “challenge authority; soon, it’s your turn to lead.” Our ability to influence teens depends not upon being the biggest, but on our ability to engage with their better selves, illuminate their emerging hopes and dreams, and side with them as they face off against the fears and insecurities that threaten to derail the project of growing up.

The idea that adolescence is a time of “storm and stress” has waxed and waned over the decades. Freud and his cohort described a time when the calm and equilibrium of late childhood was shattered by the emergence of powerful sexual urges. The grandfather of Cognitive theory, Jean Piaget, wrote early in the 20th century that it was in adolescence that the brain developed a new capacity to imagine other, more ideal scenarios such as one finds in utopian fiction or in other people’s families. In contrast, the teen found his or her own situation hopelessly, maddeningly, and tragically inadequate. Then, according to the great Erik Erikson, there was the dicey project of forming a personal identity based upon personal goals, values, and an occupation that would define one’s place in the community. By the middle of the 20th century, any teen who wasn’t managing to worry and shock the elders was suspected of lacking in moxie.

Of course there was a countermovement. Late in the century it was common to assert that only a minority of teens went through significant crises, and that mental illness was relatively rare. Most teens, it was said, disagreed with their parents only about unimportant things like chores, hairstyles, clothing and house rules as opposed to basic values like religion and politics. Still, in whose houses were religion and politics more basic to family harmony than agreement on chores, hair and house rules? Not ours.

Now, new brain development research has sided with the old “Storm and Stress” model, after all.

Has the reader ever noticed how, in the growth spurt of pre-adolescence, children first outgrow several sizes of shoes, then their pant legs and sleeves, and finally, years after the beginning, short sleeved shirts and swim suits? Not everything grows at the same rate. Even the face is out of sync with itself as the nose and teeth outgrow the jaw and eyes. There’s a reason why these are called the awkward years.

It turns out there is a similarly a-synchronous sequence in brain growth during adolescence. The limbic system governs what, in graduate school, we called the “Five F’s”: fighting, fleeing, freezing, feeding, and fornicating. As we should have guessed, it starts its growth spurt years before the more conscious, thinking brain moves to catch up. And the connections between these areas—the lower brain that urges rash, emotionally and sexually-driven behaviors and the upper brain that encourages restraint, strategic planning, and consideration of long-term consequences—develop last of all. In fact, the fibers that carry messages between the upper and lower brain areas do not typically reach maturation until the mid-twenties. Readers may recognize this as the time when they recognized their own mortality, and began to act as though things really could go wrong.

So at last we know the truth about teens: their brains are renovation zones. Like our house during its reconstruction a few years ago, the mind of a teenager is no place to go walking without, say, thick-soled shoes, a helmet and a lot of caution besides. Where there were staircases there are now ladders, and whole rooms are inaccessible, sealed by plastic wrap and choking with drywall dust (or, in this case, hormonal fog). The faith that it will come together eventually keeps us from giving up in despair, but it doesn’t make the chaos and discomfort of day-to-day living much easier.

So what do we do? Master therapist and psychologist Daniel Hughes recommends cultivating an attitude summarized by the acronym PACE: Playful, Accepting, Curious and Empathic. It’s an attitude that he teaches both parents and therapists for helping children from infancy onward, and it’s applicable in marriage as well.

Exercising PACE with a bully may on first glance seem counter-intuitive. Why give acceptance and empathy to a bully? The answer is that acceptance and empathy lead us away from relying on shame to bring about good behavior, and that turns out to be a good thing for responsibility.

New research yields the (perhaps surprising) discovery that shame is inversely related to the capacity for empathy. Embarrass a child (or adult), and their attitude toward a victim is more likely to move toward contempt than sympathy. On the other hand, asking about and empathizing with the feelings of one who commits an injury (while not condoning the action or the motives) moves that person closer to being able to empathize with—and thereby sincerely apologize and make willing reparations to—his or her victim. So if we want “I’m sorry” to mean something, we need to first ask what happened and why.

Empathizing with teens isn’t easy. Ours seem to cover themselves with “parent repellant” at times—stinky feet, stinky clothing, and stinky attitudes. They especially don’t want to talk to us when they think that they are “in trouble”. Breaking through all of that resistance requires tenacity and patience. More than this, it requires that we put away our own shame about not having perfect kids, and not being perfect parents.  Their shame gets in the way; our shame gets in the way.

To get through our own shame barriers, we need  the camaraderie and empathy of other parents.

Parents need one another more through the teen years than at any other age; yet these are the years when we tend to draw back. Play dates, car pools, and “parent attendance required” activities are replaced by the care of aging parents and trying to get off the mommy track at work. Maybe we are even afraid to admit in public that we are mystified or repelled by our once-adorable kids.

But listen to small groups of parents at ballgames and after school concerts. Do you see ones with tears running down their faces, and no one is certain whether they are happy or sad? Their laughter is laced with bitter recognition, which is eased by knowing they are not alone. It may be gallows humour, but we’ve earned it and we will survive together.  When we are understood and empathized with by our fellow parents, we feel renewed for the heartache and struggle ahead.  We often feel clearer in our own minds about what to do next.  We find a little place of calm amidst the chaos in these moments of shared comaraderie, and we cherish it.

This is the same place of calm that we can offer our teens in those moments when, against the odds, we break through our own self-consciousness or outrage or embarrassment at our cluelessness, and they break through their fear of being in trouble, and, wonder of wonders, we sit together in shared attention and compassion.  Glory be!  Now, we can get somewhere!

So, parents, will we get this right? Will we usher our children through a world that is fundamentally meaner and leaner than the one we knew, without a scratch on the paint job of our brilliant parenting or their brilliant careers? Heck no. But we will survive, and most of them will, too. It is not time to pull back from our children, but it is time to join them in compassion and empathy, asking questions and listening  as they find their own inner voice of direction.

• We are not in charge. Don’t let go of the teen, but do put down the remote control—it doesn’t work anymore. Put it next to the guilt—on a shelf far out of reach.
• Trust the blueprint; the renovation period will not last forever.
• PACE:  Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiousity and Empathy. Try to really “get” your child’s side of the story. At least accept that they have a story.
• Reach out to other parents of teens. If the world dumps on parents, parents will dump on their teens. Counteract this with PACE toward one another; we all need it.

Empathy allows us to find a calm center amidst the Storm and Stress; a small bubble of shared attention where, though we may still be in pain, we are not alone.  It works between parents, and it works between parent and child.