What’s happening inside your teen’s brain?

When my teen argues with me about mundane stuff like not-so-happening dinner, an extra five minutes in the bathroom when he is getting ready for school in the morning; it really irritates me. Here I am either at the end of a long day trying to finish dinner and wind up for the night; or at the start of the day, ensuring he and his brother reach the bus stop on time and all he wants to do is argue. Most of the time the argument is just a couple of lines from his side and a couple from mine, but it does bother me for he has never been the arguing type. I can’t help but wonder what’s up with him – I mean why can’t he just fall in line and do the simple things the way we do: be on time, have the meal without having to discuss it, take a bath in a jiffy… these small things really make me wonder how he is going to be punctual and organized in his adult life.

When I asked him what goes on in his head, he said studies. Not surprising, as he is currently in the middle of his term exams, and he said that was the only thing that was on his mind. This led me to check out what happens in the teen brain and the content that I came across was interesting as it gave actual scientific explanations as to why the teens behave the way they do.

Apparently, during the teens, an individual’s brain is making as many neural connections as the brain of a two year oldtoddler. So just like 2 year olds are prone to tantrums, and mood swings simply because they do not know how to control their emotions, the teens too are going through a similar biological development.

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According to an article posted by American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. There is a biological explanation for this difference. Studies have shown that brains continue to mature and develop throughout childhood and adolescence and well into early adulthood. Here is what the article says about the teen brain:

‘Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.’

As this part of the brain that enables decision making and logical thinking is still under development, teen behaviour is often seen as unreasonable. One moment they can be chirpy, happy and the life of the party and within moments they can change in behaviour and seem withdrawn and aloof.

As parents, we need to understand what these children are thinking and feeling. We need to appreciate that although the teen has almost grown to our size, they are undergoing changes that make them immensely vulnerable and sensitive. We need to appreciate that they are dealing with issues within that they may choose not to talk about and as parents we need to learn to respect their choice.

One of the most common mistakes parents make with issues of a teen, is to ignore the problem, and push it away as a minor phase that will pass. Look up the internet and you will find thousands of young men and women who have gone through the nightmare of being misunderstood, suffering from anxiety, depression, mental illness and most of these young people do not really know whom to reach out to. Telling their parents is usually avoided as they don’t want to worry their parents. And if the child lands in the wrong kind of company, this could spell disaster for the child and the family.

As parents, we need to make time for our children when we do not advise them, give the pep talk or quiz them on their performance in school. They are old enough to know what they want, but usually do not know how to ask for the same.

If you have a teen at home, please do not react to their sullen behaviour or sudden outbursts. Do not ask ‘what is wrong with you?’ even the young teen does not know why he or she is behaving in a certain way, and he / she is pushing the limits to establish new boundaries. Let your child explore new avenues and spaces physically and mentally and let him / her find his own area of comfort and joy.

~ Bharti Athray

Featured image credit: WTOP.com

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Pain in the teen universe

Here’s what my teen has to say on this topic:

  • Do you know that you cannot imagine pain, you can only experience it? If I tell you, I am going to punch you, you cannot imagine how it will feel, you can only experience it if I actually punch you.
  • No, I don’t need to check my pain tolerance… my body can endure a lot.

Beyond this, I have not managed to get anything more out of him on the subject of feeling pain and putting the body through pain. So being left to my own devices, my own experiences and information of how young adults process pain, here are some of my observations.

A rather disturbing article on Time.com (http://time.com/4547322/american-teens-anxious-depressed-overwhelmed/) investigates why teens inflict pain upon themselves and what they hope to achieve. It was shocking for me to see that almost 60% of young girls and 30-40% of teen boys self harm as a way to deal with anxiety and stress. While cuts and slashed wrists to us parents seem signs of attempted suicide, it appears that is not what the teens have in mind when they cut themselves or hurt themselves. I found the article well researched and here are the key points shared:

  • Some teens do self harm to deal with extreme anxiety that they feel and are unable to express in any other way. It is a momentary release for the stress that they feel inside.
  • Others are often numbed by the pressures of their modern demanding lives: school pressures, social media pressures, online bullying, maintaining digital profiles and perceptions, and being connected to strangers and groups half way across the world. This exposure to the outside world is uncontrolled and impacts the teens in ways their parents cannot imagine. For them, physically harming themselves by cutting and letting blood is a way to be in the moment, to be able to feel the pain at the physical level, which they had so far been feeling on an emotional level.
  • Like most of us, teens too are drawn to those aspects of the world that are different from their routine lives. Hence they try to reach out to people and groups who may follow a line of thinking that is very different from their own. This line of thinking can cause them to push themselves over the edge, and test their own limits. Eg: the blue whale game. For this lot, self inflicted harm is a way of connecting with their physical body for a while atleast. It brings peace, calm and stillness to their young restless minds.

What is worrying is that these teens are continuously exposing their bodies and minds to this torture. This often goes unnoticed by parents for years, for outwardly these children seem to be living a picture perfect life, complete with good grades, caring involved parents and a happy circle of friends.

As parents, look for signs if your teen is withdrawing from social interaction, be careful about putting too many expectations on your child. And if your teen does reach out to you telling you about self harm, try to understand what your child is going through. Do not punish, demean their issues or shame them for the behaviour.

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As the graph above shows, the number of teens causing self harm, suffering from anxiety and depression is on the rise. While these numbers are 2014 numbers, and I am at this time, unable to source more current data, the graph is a very clear indicator of the continuous rise in the number of teens suffering from this worrying state of mind. Living with digital gadgets is one of the key causes, as your child could be sitting in the car right next to you but be connecting with an unknown teen suffering from depression or anxiety miles away.  The young mind is usually unable to make the distinction between screen world and reality. So even while you may feel you are spending a lot of time with your child, the fact may be that, in today’s world where we all spend a lot of time checking our smartphones and staying connected online, your teen may be feeling alone, isolated and disconnected.

Is it possible for parents to identify if their child is going down the road towards self harm? Are their signs that we can watch out for? How do we help our child deal with stress and anxiety once we realise that the child is suffering from such a mental problem and needs help. Is there something that we can do? At what point should the family reach out to counsellors? Do read the Time article for excellent information and guidelines on the same issue.  http://time.com/4547322/american-teens-anxious-depressed-overwhelmed/

~


Bharti Athray

 

Is your teen fascinated with Death?

Having taken up this topic for the article, I did a bit of research online and found that teen fascination with death is a common phenomenon among youngsters today. Apparently there are Death Cafes that have opened up in different parts of the world where young adults can come and talk about Death and related issues. Apparently the ancient Egyptian approach to death with embalming and mummification in an area of special interest for these young minds.

I found it interesting to note that this fascination with Death according to one article by The Guardian comes from the fact that these days, we don’t talk about death with our children, we avoid talking about it because we are uncomfortable with it.

In the earlier generations, death in families was a common phenomenon where children living with their grandparents would see death at close quarters, illnesses and diseases were common and families often lost a child or two to diseases like tuberculosis or cholera; so children grew up seeing death around them.

Today, children for a long time do not understand the permanence of death. Look at the cartoons they watch, a character can be squashed or pushed down from the 20th floor of the building and it will get up, dust itself and start walking around. Further, video games are full of children shooting and killing the bad guys, so there is no sense of guilt, or remorse when you shoot or kill someone. It’s just a part of the game and you are doing it to increase your score.

It is only as the young children enter their teens and start taking interest in the real world around them – through news, the television shows that they begin to realize that death is different from how they have understood it all along. It is at this stage that they realize the permanence and definiteness of death. Now they look for ways to understand this very important aspect of existence.

When I spoke to my teen and asked him about his fascination for this subject, here’s what he told me:

  1. It does not fascinate me
  2. I am not scared of death
  3. All of you guys are scared of death, I can see it in your eyes.

I am not sure what is it that he can see in our eyes, but with due respect to his opinions, I wonder what is it that he has observed in the adults that makes him believe that we fear death. For as a family, we don’t.

Personally, I don’t think I have ever feared death, after all, whether you fear it or you don’t, you will ultimately die. And just because you are going to die, you cannot stop living. It is about making the most of your time here on earth. Everything stops to exist at some point in time: plants, animals, mountains, rivers… it is part of the cycle of the universe. Yet while they exist, they do their bit to make this world a little better.

As part of my research, I found that this sudden realization that once you are dead, well, you are just dead; this reality makes the teens question everything that we do and strive to achieve. After all, one day we will all be dead and how will anything we do make a difference to the world afterwards? This existential question is a difficult one to answer, and given that our entire culture is today built around the idea of ‘living for the moment’, there is no seriousness towards leaving behind a legacy. With so many young couples choosing to live together for a short while, not have children, the need to leave behind a legacy is just not felt.

The choice of living for today, for the moment, while it makes sense when one is trying to live a stress free life, can also tend to make one’s life a tad meaningless. When you have no purpose in life other than indulging your senses, you will soon find your senses over time become numb to the same stimulus. They do not get as excited over parties, drink, sex as they did when you began to indulge in these activities initially.

Then to find even more excitement for the senses, the youngsters begin to experiment with substances, unnatural sex and drink themselves senseless. It is in this space that a majority of youngsters find themselves, with no elder to speak to, no one who can guide them out of this quicksand. Some teens smarten up and realize they are wasting away their lives and talents and need to get their act together: at times to support their families, at other times to get their careers in order.

And then there are others who come from very comfortable homes, where they are not questioned about what they do with their time and money, there is no pressure on them to perform at the academic level, their future has been well taken care of by their doting parents – it is this lot that usually slides into the quagmire of decadent living, taking every pleasure to the extreme.

These are the youngsters who cannot think beyond the next party, the next shopping trip with their friends, the next international holiday… they actually begin to believe this is what all of life is. And the idea of death seems like a fairytale. Everything appears so perfect in their hazy world that for them even death is something to be experienced and probably to be awakened from the next day, with a bad hangover.

What can we do as parents of teens growing up in this world where everything appears ‘happy’? Well, I think we need to speak to our kids and understand what are their ideas of death and life. Understand on what basis they are forming their opinions, and see if we can introduce them to some realities of life and the practical aspects of how lives are built, of how families bond and depend on each other and the important role that each individual plays in his or her family, community and on a larger scale the society.

What the young teens today lack is the big picture, they fail to see how what they will do is going to fit into the world as it exists today. My son has told me things like, ‘your generation has messed up this world and now we will have to deal with this’. If this is any indicator of what teens today feel, I think it is our responsibility to help them explore and realize that the world is really a beautiful place. And while yes, there are lots of things not right – which may always have been the case, each of us has the power to make a difference in our own circle of influence, and we need to have skills, knowledge and the attitude to make the difference.

Merely getting fed up with all that is wrong and trying to escape from reality is not the answer. The answer lies in looking at this problem in the eye and having the guts to set it right. If you and I can help our teens understand and look at the world from this perspective, I think we will be one step closer to nurturing a generation that is more fascinated with life than it is with death.

~ Bharti Athray

Defining my writing goals

My goal for Jeff Goins’ 500 words a day challenge is to be able to compile a set of articles that address the issues that face parents and teens as they try to grope their way through the growing up years. I want to have written at least 20 articles that address the different issues that concern and worry the young teens and the ways in which parents try to deal or sometimes just ignore the issues and hope they go away.

So here let me create an outline for the articles that I will consider writing:

  1. Teen fascination with death
  2. Why teens think it is okay to put the body through pain, and check its pain tolerance
  3. What’s going on inside your mind?
  4. How teens choose their role models and can parents influence that choice
  5. Why is it such a challenge to get teens to study
  6. Difficult choices in teen years: careers, girlfriends/ boyfriends and more
  7. How much should you expect your teen to share
  8. Checking your teens personal writings, drawings and social media accounts
  9. How do you know if you are losing your teen?
  10. Critical years to plan your career
  11. Should your child be allowed to take a gap year after school?
  12. Is college education still the key to success in today’s start up culture?
  13. What really matters in your child’s education?
  14. Is the burden of education loan worth it for your child
  15. Should Indian parents consider sending their young teens overseas for studies?
  16. The role of schools in teen’s education
  17. The role of parents in teen’s education
  18. ‘Finding’ yourself in the teen years
  19. The dangers of being a highly talented and intelligent teen
  20. Should you care about your friends
  21. Moving out of sheltered zones
  22. So are you a kid or an adult?
  23. Handling emotions during the last school year
  24. The pressure of performance and living upto expectations
  25. Choosing beliefs about the world
  26. Key influencers in the growing years
  27. The challenges of the digital era for young adults
  28. What should I be reading?
  29. Does my education really define me?
  30. Finding truth in a digital world
  31. Is negativity in art a problem?

The idea would be to capture thoughts of young teens in my circle and my attempts as a parent to handhold my own teen through this journey. I have realized this process is as much a journey for me as it is for him, and in the process of having your child become an adult, each of us also learns to let go and accept the other person’s point of view. This is a challenge for parents as we have been doing all the thinking for the kids all these years. Now, to come to terms with the fact that they have a mind of their own, that is a really difficult truth to accept and let them do what they want. I invite you to stick with me and join me in this exploration of how the young minds of today actually think and work.

~ Bharti Athray

Image source: Australian Institute of Family Studies

Teaching my teen to clean the kitchen

Okay, so this is part of my 500 words a day commitment, as part of my new year plan to develop the writing habit. I have tried it last month with another encouraging writer, but did not manage to write every day. So here I am trying again. I love writing, I love the way it lets me solves puzzles and issues using words. I love the fact that I can use words to reach out to others and make a difference to someone, but after my initial efforts, my enthusiasm peters out and I get caught up doing some routine work and not writing.

But what the heck! Here I am, back again, working on developing my daily writing habit over the next 31 days.

So today, I am going to crib a bit about how I am just so tired of having to clean up the kitchen every night. I am a working woman, live with my two boys, my hubby and my amazing amazing in-laws who literally hold our home together. And at the end of each day, after dinner, while the boys (the big one and the two little ones) watch TV, I have to drag myself to the kitchen and clean it up! Trust me, it is quite a task, we are a large, kind of a messy family and it takes me almost 45 minutes each night just to clean up the kitchen platform and put things back into their places.

There are times when the chore really gets to me and I pull in my teenage son to pitch in, and to be fair to him, he can really get the granite on the kitchen top to shine and get everything organized. But kids being kids will do this kind of work only for a day or so, once in a while; you can’t actually get them to do it on a regular basis.

And I can’t help but wonder why this happens. I mean, look at the teens that we have growing up around us these days: they have a tremendous amount of exposure, are well read, intelligent, but it is very difficult for us to get them to contribute usefully in a family or community. Anything you ask them to do will be done with enthusiasm till it has novelty value. Beyond that, they will quietly escape the responsibility. So what is it that makes teens behave like this today?

You can look back at history and find that till about 60-70 years ago, typically by the time a young man was in his teens, he would be employed as an apprentice with some master craftsmen, or artist, or in a family trade; in the hope of learning some skill or trade that would enable him to earn a living.

What are our teenagers today doing? They are very busy putting up selfies on social media, commenting, connecting, watching videos that someone else is making… and the academically oriented ones are busy cramming for some entrance exam. Does this make them ready to take on the real world? Of course there are those who question everything and challenge the establishment at every step, and one assumes this is where the new thinking will come from. But in my personal experience, merely thinking about something is not good enough, a very important aspect of learning is applying your knowledge and execution of what you have learnt. With most of the learning being essentially theoretical, there is a distinct gap when things come to execution and application.

As the mother of a teenager, my constant effort is to get him to ‘do’ something and not merely think about what needs to be done. And learning a skill, any skill in my opinion is a very important part of one’s growth process. With ideas available everywhere, today ideas are valued lesser and lesser unless you are able to make these ideas happen. Making ideas happen needs skills: any skill, you could be a computer operator and you could make an idea happen, or you could be a fashion designer and make ideas happen. But if the only skill you have is putting stuff up on social media, you are not going to get far. For even on social media, what gets shared is unique, original content. That is what Google is looking for. So to be a success even on social media, you need the ability to create and develop content – have skill that you can put to use.

This is what stays at the top of my mind as I see my son work away, cleaning the kitchen top on the few nights that he agrees to help me out. I hope that as he does the work with his hands, he is learning a skill or two, something he may be able to apply to his daily life, at school or at play. That is what I as a parent hope to impart to my teen, as he prepares to step out into today’s highly competitive world. What are you doing as a parent to get your teen ready for the future? Please share!

~ Bharti Athray

 

Are you lying your way through life?

There are those amongst us who are dying a little every day. I don’t know them when I see them but I do know it is a very large number. They are those men and women who are living their lives as lies – they let their dreams fall by the way side as they began to work for large corporates, for paid vacations, for stability. They gave up on their teenage dreams because they fell in love and decided to start a family.

It is so ironic, is it not, that you fall in love with someone because of the dreams they dream, because of the incredible life they see for themselves and yet, as soon as you decide to get together, you almost force the person to give up on that dream because it does not put food on the table each night. It is such a sad story, the story of so many many young couples, who today spend their lives waiting for the next holiday, the next big car, the next new gadget.

All of this because they are quietly dying inside. Of course, you will never know that when you meet them, they seem so happy, so perfect, with their jet-setting lives, you wonder what could possibly be wrong with such people. Yet pick up the papers and you will see, the star couple that till a few weeks ago was being celebrated as the perfect pair are now applying for divorce.

Leading CEOs and their illustrious wives are being accused of murder of their children… seriously, are these signs of a happy, balanced society? Personally, I think not. I believe somewhere in the race to get ahead, to look eternally young, to have the better phone and laptop, to have more followers than all your friends on twitter, you have built yourself a castle of lies and are now stuck inside it.

At this point, I am reminded of a serial I caught bits of recently: on Escobar, the Cuban druglord of the eighties. There is the part where he is on the run and he reaches his father’s home in an unheard of village. His father lets him stay out of courtesy, and there is a scene where Escobar tries to convince his father that he has become a great man. To which his father says, he is ashamed of him, of what he has become.

That is such a truth, it hit me straight in the heart. See, we go from day to day, moving around in our worlds, where we are all heroes to someone. Even Escobar for all his wrongdoings, had fans and people who swore allegiance to him till their last breath.

But this is a make-believe world, that we have created for ourselves. Our social media persona, our blogs, our instagram accounts – through each of these we choose what part of our personalities we want to show the world. The lives that we are living today are uni-dimensional, and so completely out of balance. Every aspect that we share about ourselves, our lunches and dinners with family and friends, the foods we make in our kitchens, the private moments we share with our children… it is all captured with the selfish objective of uploading the images on to the social media.

And those of us who do it regularly have figured out what gets the likes and what does not. To me, we are all constantly manipulating the outside world, put things out that we know others will like, these to me are half-truths. When I see pictures of lunches and dinners with family and friends on public media, I cannot help but wonder how such a private moment of caring justifies being shared with the world. Why? Why would anyone do that? Except to tell others that they hung out with so and so if that person is important, or just to get people to say, Oh Wow!

I have yet to see a negative comment on personal pictures shared, for the simple reason that what happens in your personal life, unless it is an achievement of some kind, does not really matter to the world outside. But uploading these images and getting people to put some silly meaningless comments, I feel one is trivializing the moment and the event. But then that is my perspective, and I come from a world where I had just a handful of friends who knew just some of my secrets.

May be my point of view varies because putting your life out there in the public domain to me appears crass. Most of my social media accounts do not even have my photo in the profile, as I find it embarrassing – I do. I come from the time when you let your actions speak louder than words, and today times have changed.

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Today, you can get shouting from rooftops, long before you have taken even a single step towards your goal. It is called ‘market testing’. And depending on how convincing your spiel is, you are sure to get a few likes, followers, some thumsup and such. I hope one of these days you will begin to realize that this false world is what is killing you. You may have a 1000 fans and yet not one of them may know your deep dark secret. You may have a hundred followers, but nobody you can pick up the phone and chat with when you are feeling low. So what are these people really worth to your real life?

I think those of us who gave up our dreams long ago and now look to this new world to give us acceptance, we absolutely need to figure this out. What are these fans, followers and comments really worth? Are we using these new counts to hide our own deficiencies? Are the happy pictures a cover up for the sadness the world feels inside? Is social media a true mirror of our society or is it just a mirage? Only time will tell.

~ bharti athray

Why men should be writing a journal

It makes you a better person, you get to complete your thoughts, and you will lead a more meaningful life.

In my personal experience, I have found journal writing as an acceptable trait amongst women; but very few men I know actually write journals. As I work with this topic of journal writing, and its many benefits to me as an individual, I began to wonder why men do not write journals as frequently as women do?

This realization was a surprise to me as some of my earliest inspiration for journal writing came from men who made it a life habit to write diaries and journals, namely Thomas Jefferson, Issac Newton, John D Rockefeller … these are some of my favourite journal keepers and I can read about their journal writing habits over and over again. And the more I read, the more it appears that these men used their journal to record their habits, ideas and responses to the world around them, and over the years used these records to better themselves.

So this brings me back to my current question: why are men not writing journals as much as they used to? Possible answers: Too busy, nothing to say, nothing to write, no time, I am too tired to write by the time I get home… the reasons are endless. But in my opinion, journal writing is a process that forces you to introspect.

Does your work often leave you with a thousand voices in your head, each one telling you to do a different thing? Are you sometimes over-awed by the amount of work piled on your table, unable to decide where to start? Is the internet pushing too much information towards you and pushing your brain towards overload? Well, journal writing can help.

I know this sounds like I am coming up with a single solution, no matter what your problem, but it is not really that. The fact is there are different kinds of journals you can keep – some for your secret thoughts, others for your goals and plans, yet one may be just a record of the people you have met and found something interesting about… to name but a few.

If you have never had a journal, I urge you to get one. It does not have to be fancy and expensive, just get something you are comfortable with and something you feel nice holding in your hands. Initially you may find it difficult to decide what to write, and you may want to start with just putting down the thoughts that float around in your head.

If after the first couple of days, you run out of thoughts, you can try opinions, or issues that are bothering you, you can pen down your thoughts on issues impacting your neighbourhood, city or even the world. Sure, you may ask ‘what is the use?’ But do it all the same. You see, when you begin to write something down, your mind begins to solve a puzzle. The points you put down will surprise you… don’t worry about making sense, and writing in your best English. You just need to put your thoughts down, that is all.

Do this often enough and you will find yourself feeling lighter, because you have shared your innermost thoughts and feelings with your journal. You will find it easier to deal with the world outside. You don’t always have to be the tough guy, it’s ok to get upset and rant a bit.

And for those idea seekers amongst you, your journal is a great way to keep track of your many ideas that pop up in your mind all day long. Capture them, pen them down and come back to your thoughts days, weeks or even years later. Your ideas will still be there for you to access.

As you can see, there are so many wonderful reasons to keep a journal, a book by your bed, that it would be a sad thing if you did not make the time to write your thoughts down. Each of us is unique and has his own perspective on life. The myriad ways of looking at a situation is what makes our lives richer. So join the tribe of journal writers, and celebrate your uniqueness by penning it down for posterity!

~ bharti athray

Image source: http://www.daan-mag.com/index.php/2016/03/10/the-mind-journal/