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January 22, 2016

Why Your Teenager Is Irrational

For several years, a teenager may not interpret his world accurately. There is often an irrationality associated with adolescence that can be terribly frustrating to parents. It is difficult at that time to reason your way out of conflict. Let me offer an illustration that may explain the problem. 

In graduate school I was told a story about a medical student who was required as part of his training to spend a few weeks working in a psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately, he was given little orientation to the nature of mental illness, and he mistakenly thought he could reason his patients back to a world of reality. One schizophrenic inmate was of particular interest to him, because the man believed himself to be dead. 

"Yeah, it's true," the patient would tell anyone who asked. "I'm dead. Been dead for years." 

The intern couldn't resist trying to talk the schizophrenic out of his delusion. He sat down with the patient and said, "I understand you think you're dead. Is that right?" 

"Sure is," replied the man. "I'm deader than a doornail." 

The intern continued, "Well, answer me this: Do dead people bleed?""No, of course not," replied the schizophrenic, sounding perfectly sane.The intern then took the patient's hand in his own and stuck a needle into the fleshy part of his thumb. As the blood oozed from the puncture, the schizophrenic gasped and exclaimed, "Well, what do you know! Dead people do bleed!" 

There may be times when you may find yourself holding similar conversations with your uncomprehending adolescent. These moments will likely occur while you are trying to explain why he must be home by a certain hour, why she should keep her room straight, why he can't have the car on Friday night, or why it doesn't really matter that she wasn't invited to the cool party given by the most popular kid in the senior class. These issues defy reason, and teens are more likely to respond instead to the dynamic emotional, social and chemical forces that propel them. I can also assure you that the strong-willed child is especially susceptible to these internal and sometimes irrational forces. Whatever testiness was there in the past 12 years is most likely to get worse before it gets better. 

Let me quote from a US News & World Report article that helps articulate this phenomenon: 

One day, your child [if naturally compliant] is a beautiful, charming 12-year-old, a kid who pops out of bed full of good cheer, clears the table without being asked, and brings home good grades from school. The next day, your child bursts into tears when you ask for the salt and listens to electronic music at maximum volume for hours on end. Chores? Forget it. Homework? There's little time, after talking to friends on the phone for five hours every night. Mornings? Your bluebird of happiness is flown, replaced by a groaning lump that can scarcely be roused out of bed. Welcome to adolescence. 

What is going on here? Why the sudden volatility and irrationality? The answer is straightforward. It's the mischievous hormones that have begun to surge! They are the key to understanding nearly everything that doesn't add up in the teen years. The emotional characteristics of a suddenly rebellious teenager, or the worsening of them, are rather like premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or severe menopause in women. 

Obviously, dramatic changes are going on inside! If the upheaval was caused entirely by environmental factors, its onset in puberty would not be so predictable. The emotional changes I have described arrive right on schedule, timed to coincide precisely with the onset of physical maturation. Both changes, I contend, are driven by a common hormonal assault. Human chemistry apparently goes haywire for a few years, affecting mind as much as body. 

Does this understanding make it easier for parents to tolerate and cope with the reverberations of puberty? Probably not, but it should. For several years, a teenager may not interpret his world accurately. His social judgment is impaired. His fear of danger is muted, and his view of responsibility is warped. 

Therefore, it is a good idea not to despair when it looks as though everything you have tried to teach your kid seems to have been forgotten—or never learned. He is going through a metamorphosis that has turned everything upside down. But stick around. He'll regain his equilibrium in due time and your relationship will stabilize—providing you're not the one who is insane by that point. 

From Dr. Dobson's book The New Strong-Willed Child.

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