Therapy Blog

Teenagers & Ostriches

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Avoidance in teenagers can be infuriating, but try to remember that the impulse control center of the brain is not done developing until about age 25 (left medial pre-frontal cortex–behind your forehead, slightly to the left).

What’s the first image that pops into your head when you think, “Ostrich?” It’s probably either an image of one running, pecking at somebody or a cartoon of an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand.

Because teenagers are brand new, growing adults, they are going to make mistakes. One of those mistakes can be avoidance of responsibility, conflict and natural consequences for their actions (that’s the head being stuck in the sand). As frustrating as it is, it’s important not to assume it’s simple laziness or an intentionally disrespectful personal attack on you. Most of the time, the avoidance is preceded by something that triggered it. Sometimes the trigger is quite obvious and easier to discuss. Other times it can be surprising to find out what your teen is responding to. Quite often, however, it has less to do with you than it does an unconscious motivation that leads to thoughts, which in turn generate behavioral options. The younger the teen, or the less emotionally developed, the fewer options there are; and those options are more likely to miss certain important consequences.

How to handle it

First, if it’s not already clear, do not take it personally and fly off the handle. Be curious about what their unconscious minds are trying to show you. Most parents of teens know that timing is everything when it comes to teachable moments. Look for times when they seem more at ease, likely not as soon as they walk in the door from school. A balanced approach is important. You know your teenager and know what they respond better to, but here are a few examples to consider:

  • Be matter-of-fact, not overly sappy, not freaked out anxious
  • Give benefit of the doubt; don’t assume the worst
  • Be specific, but not nit-picky, in describing the problem, being sure to interject benefit of the doubt if they seem to get defensive
  • Let them speak their side. Listen to them, and work to understand their perspective, even if you disagree with it
  • Ask them for alternative options that they can use next time avoidance is an issue. Give them adjustments to their ideas. Coach them through thinking of alternatives

Don’t push the time. Bear in mind their attention span, especially for difficult topics. And remember, this is their first time being a teenager. . . they will make mistakes; it’s also your first time parenting them during their adolescent years, so you’ll make mistakes, too. It’s ok. If you are feeling uncertain, please get in touch with me.

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