Quit With The Condemnation

(Expanded version of O.C. Register article-2/28/14)

"You should know better" with its unspoken "shame on you" is a damaging phrase. I have found that parents of teens overuse this pointed remark, myself included. This is the problem: teens are children in almost full-grown bodies. That's confusing. They are as tall as us, they borrow our clothes, their voices sound mature, and if you took a saw to their skulls, you would find their brains are practically the same size as ours. But we need to be careful not to equate size with knowledge. Studies show that the brain of an adolescent is still under construction.

The brain, the complex organ responsible for "knowing better," goes through quite a bit of growth during the teen years. Before a person enters their twenties, the parts of the brain involved in managing impulsive and emotional responses are underdeveloped. Add to that the heightened reproductive and stress hormones coursing through their bodies and you will find an unpredictable, self-critical, roller-coaster-of-a-teen. Should we really be making them feel worse for their medically-proven inability to know better?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we should just throw up our hands and leave them to their own devices. We must parent on: reminding, lecturing, spelling-it-out, teaching. That's our job. But don't be surprised, or overly critical, when what seems so obvious to you is completely shocking to them. Yes, we have spent YEARS repeating the same lessons. NO, the rules haven't changed much. But our competition is great. Teens are consumed by things of their world: a comment they heard at school; a picture on Instagram; and the overwhelming feeling that they might laugh/cry/scream/throw up/hit something, every day. It's hard on them and on us. I know...I live with one. But the job of a parent doesn't end until their brains are fully developed, apparently when they are safely in their twenties.

As parents, we need to lay off the shame and regularly remind our kids that what they're going through is totally NORMAL. They need our compassion, love, guidance, support, patience and protection. We need to check our expectations and help them navigate this overwhelming and confusing time. When we use those four condemning words tainted with the tone of disappointment, we stoke their self-doubt and communicate to them that they aren't intelligent. When we scold them for lack of control over their impulses (which, again, have been proven to be uncontrollable), we ignite their defensiveness instead of aiding their understanding. When we mistakingly expect our adult-sized children to act with the discretion and wisdom of an adult, we set them up for failure.

So, the more we know and understand the abilities and vulnerabilities of our teens, the better equipped we are to safeguard this critical stage in their development and in turn, their life-long mental health. If we are their advocates, their support system and their guides, they will come out of it with their hearts whole and their sensibilities intact. And don't we owe that to them, especially since we know better?


You can find more cool info about the teen brain at www.appsych.mrduez.com.

Holly and Jenn


  1. And to think you were once my teenager, and now, here you are, a mother of one. One day she'll know how lucky she is to have you for her mom. Great article -- especially the "bottom line." LUF