Adolescence is a period in which children may experience rapid growth in their bodies and brains, as well as heightened emotions. That’s because the emotional centers of the brain (the limbic system and amygdala) are maturing more quickly than the brain’s reasoning center (the prefrontal cortex), which helps with organization, problem solving, and understanding emotions. Reasoning doesn’t catch up with emotions until about age 25. As these changes occur, young people may express passions, joys, or sensitivities. Sometimes heightened emotions may lead them to feel greater sadness and anger, or to take risks.
At the same time, parents might be playing catch-up as well—and they may feel at times like nothing they say or do matters. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, wants parents to know how much they do, in fact, matter during adolescence. He also wants parents to know how their attitudes and actions throughout adolescence can affect their children for the better, now and into adulthood.
I spoke with Ginsburg to learn more about this impact, strategies for parents, and his latest book, Congrats—You’re Having a Teen! Strengthen Your Family and Raise a Good Person.
Eden Pontz: The title of your book includes congratulations to parents of teens. That’s not a narrative we hear often enough when it comes to adolescence. Why is it so important to reject the undermining narratives that we hear so often?
Ken Ginsburg: I want every parent to know how much of a difference they can make in their child’s life. If you believe what people on one side might say to you, which is, “Hold on tight, a terrible time is coming,” or if you believe that adolescents don’t like their parents, or don’t care what adults think, you won’t engage. Instead, you’ll choose to say, “This is a time I need to get past and survive.”
I want you to think the opposite and understand this is an opportunity to shape an adult. It’s an opportunity to shape your relationship far into the future and really influence the well-being of your child. To do that, you have to know how much you matter. To know how much you matter, you have to know how much kids are listening to you and valuing your advice. So yes, congratulations, you’re having a teen! That means you have an amazing opportunity to stay involved.
EP: How do you think changing the way that caring adults and parents approach teens could change the world? What would you want to see done and why?
KG: Adolescents are adults coming into focus. When we prepare adolescents to be good people, to care about others and to want to contribute to the world, we are changing the future. When we prepare adolescents to understand that there is nothing more powerful than human connection, that we rely on family for advice to grow, and to help make our wisest decisions, we’re producing adults who are going to lead us into a better future.
So, yes, you can look at how your child scores on a test and define success that way. You can be proud of the goals that they might score on the field. But what you want to look at is, who are they becoming? You want them to become a good person, worthy of leading us into the future. How does that happen? Not by telling your kid to be a good person, but by seeing what’s already good and right about them. Celebrate that and build on it.
EP: In your book, you talk about the need for role modeling and effective communication between parent and teen. How do those approaches play into building character?
KG: We want to raise good human beings, people who care about themselves and care about other people. And adolescence is an amazing opportunity where people are developing their sense of identity, who they are and how they want to walk through the universe. They’re looking for what or who they might be as an adult, and they’re looking around for role models. If you’re in the position of being a role model for your child, show them you have struggles and complexities and are always trying to right yourself when something goes wrong. It’s in that transparency of showing how hard you work to be good and maintain a balance, even when life seems unsteady, that your kids are watching. They’re not looking for perfection, they’re looking for how you grow, how you navigate, and how you interact with other people, even when things are not going your way. That’s how you learn the essence of a human being.
But is role modeling enough? It’s the start. What follows is open communication and talking to our kids about what matters, our values. How we make decisions. How we calm ourselves when we’re not feeling so calm inside. And, at times, saying nothing and listening to them. As young people try to figure out who they are, they’re going to be testing their own values. And a lot of the decisions that they’re going to be making daily are things like: What does it mean to be a good person, to be a good friend, to be patient, to be humble, and to listen to other people’s ideas? They’re learning all of these things. That takes a lot of inner thought and inner dialogue. When they have a human being who’s ready to listen to them—that’s you—to be a sounding board as they are debating the complexities of life, they’re going to find it easier to find their own footing and be the kind of person you’re hoping for them to become.
EP: As parents, we want to protect our children. As you say, we wish we could wrap them up in bubble wrap. What are some ways for parents to help manage these feelings? And how can we as parents and caring adults best guide our teens when they face challenges and negative influences?
KG: Our kids do push us away sometimes. Not because they stop loving us or because they don’t want us in their life. Quite the opposite. Adolescence is about learning how much independence you can handle and learning to stand on your own two feet. When your child was 18 months and tiptoeing down the hallway, and you went to make sure they wouldn’t fall, they didn’t say, “Thanks Mom, Dad for giving me some extra stability here.” They pushed you away and said, “No, me!” Not because they didn’t love you, but because they needed to figure out how to do it on their own.
As someone who cares about teenagers, I also want teenagers to be protected. I want them to stay away from risky territory and to not stray beyond reasonable limits. I want our kids to be healthy and well. That’s what parents want. There’s a part of you impulsively that wants to wrap them in a downy quilt or in bubble wrap so they would never have to face life’s challenges. The problem is, you can’t. That’s the reason why the best protection you can give your child is preparation. Prepare them for the real world with the skill sets needed to navigate even when it gets tough.
The first thing you need is to have them approach the world with a feeling of security, so that they know that they can make a mistake and recover. You can build that security when you raise your kid to know that they can’t lose you, that you will love them unconditionally and stand by them, even when they make mistakes. It doesn’t mean you approve of everything. But it means you’re not going anywhere.
Once you have that kind of grounding, then what your child needs are skills to be able to navigate the world, even when it gets complicated. A lot of those skill sets are about how to communicate with other human beings when something is happening that you wish wasn’t or that you don’t want to be involved in. So, teaching them how to state their values clearly and how to say, for example, “No, I’m not going to be able to do that today.” Teaching them the power of being able to say no is one example of a skill set they can use. Another thing I want for all kids to be able to do is to learn how to use a healthy way of getting out of a situation, if they can’t talk their way out of it easily.
That’s why I suggest every family early in adolescence—maybe even before adolescence—has a code word. So, if a kid finds themselves in an uncomfortable situation, they just need to text their family a code that says, “Mom, I didn’t get to walk Spotty today.” Spotty, in this example, is the code word. If the parent hears that, they know their child needs to get out of a situation, and texts back. They might write, “You were supposed to be home an hour ago! Where are you? I’m picking you up now.” The parent takes the blame.
EP: What would you tell a parent who is struggling with the need to want to protect their child? How can they help manage their feelings?
KG: I do want you to protect your child. But I also want you to know when you should jump in versus when the best protection you can give your child is to let them learn from the circumstances. When your kid was two years old, you baked cookies together. If they spilled chocolate chips on the ground and the flour went all over their face, you helped them clean up and helped them learn the lesson of spilled chocolate chips—cookies with fewer chips in them! They learned the consequence. But you didn’t let them put their hand on the stove. You didn’t have time to reason or teach that lesson, you needed to keep their hand away from the stove.
Adolescence is not very different. There are “hand-on-the-stove moments,” the times that you should jump in when there is no lesson other than, “My job as a parent is to protect you and you need to do what I say now.” For example, you don’t ever want them to get into a car in which there’s any substances involved. That is a hand-on-the-stove moment in which you establish clear rules that are not flexible. There is never going to be a time when you’d be OK with them getting into a car if someone is not fully able to think or drive because of substances.
But then there’s going to be lots of other experiences in life that are within safe boundaries. They might make you uncomfortable, but they’re still safe. For example, let’s say they don’t do so well on a test in school. What happens when they don’t score so well on a test? They learn a life lesson—to study harder the next time. So, what you’re always trying to determine is—is this problem a hand-on-the-stove moment, in which case your parenting imperative is to jump in and not let them make a mistake, or is it within safe boundaries? And if it’s within safe boundaries, the best thing that can happen is for you to prepare your child to do the best they can in the situation.
Life gives each of us those little failures that allow us to fall down and get back up. Your job is to help them get back up without shame, blame, or judgment and to take advantage of this opportunity for growth.
EP: You talk about how teens are idealistic and how they want to change the world. What are some ways that we can help teens harness their passions and make a positive impact?
KG: One of the greatest myths about adolescents is that they’re self-centered. Nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe a teen cares what their skin looks like or what outfit they’re wearing one day. And then all of a sudden we look at that child and say they’re self-centered. I believe that is the way we shut down idealism.
I think that on some level, many of us fear adolescent idealism. As adults, we’ve learned to avert our eyes to problems in society. But adolescents ask why. They ask, “How did you just walk by that man experiencing homelessness? Do you not see his suffering?” Things we’ve learned to ignore, they’re not willing to ignore. That is our greatest hope for the future. The fact that they have that righteous indignation that says, “What did you do wrong? I can do better.” We want to nurture that, because our future is every generation figuring out things we haven’t.
How do we nurture this in our kids? Listen to them and don’t shut them down. If they have something to say that is frustrating to them about the current state of the world, listen, and celebrate the fact that they care. Then listen further, as they offer solutions. And if those solutions need a little bit of back and forth, have that back and forth, to get them to sharpen their ideas. Create opportunities for them to go out and make a difference in the world.
We know a protective thing in a young life is to have a sense of purpose and know that they matter. How do you learn that? By “mattering.” So, let’s get our kids out there. Let them volunteer to clean up the neighborhood, work on an environmental project, or help the neighbor who’s ill and can’t grocery shop. Find out what your child’s interest is and give them opportunities to be able to know they make a difference, and they matter. This will build their strengths, give them more confidence, and they will lead us into a better future.