My daughter and I almost made it through Mother’s Day without screaming at each other. Unfortunately, as I was driving Katie back to her Dad’s house to pick up some homework, she refused to put on any shoes. (Not even her flip flops...!)
I lost my temper. “You’ll step on glass!” I yelled. “You’ll make the carpet dirty! You’ll get pin worms!” Needless to say, Katie screamed her dislike of me right back into my face, and we had a lousy Mother’s Day moment.
Now, you may be thinking, who cares if children wear shoes all the time? Let them go barefoot. (After all, my children live in Florida with their Dad.) Or, perhaps it should appear obvious to me that Katie was trying to initiate a conflict with her mother because she is a teenager and seeking her own authority? Or, maybe you understand that Katie’s 13 year-old brain is drowning in hormones, so rational behavior is not something that I should expect on a consistent basis?
It’s this last question that I want to address. Recently, I took Katie to get a thyroid test from her pediatrician to rule out the possibility of unstable thyroid levels explaining her exhausted, moody behavior. (Her thyroid was normal.) My pediatrician, who has a 15 year-old daughter, seemed to understand my anxiety. She just rolled her eyes toward heaven when I raised the question about what quantity of mood changes are ‘normal’ for teenagers.
Teen hormone surges are a real thing. New research in neuroscience provides parents with some satisfying, if unnerving details. A PBS Frontline show Inside the Teenage Brain  (2002), shows how MRI research has revealed “an unexpected growth spurt”—“a second wave of overproduction” of brain cell growth that happens with puberty. As with an infant, the brain grows rapidly in preteens and teens, and then gets ‘pruned’ back in order to shape future neuro-pathways. Not surprisingly, the frontal cortex — the organizational, ‘understand these consequences’ part of the brain — is still in development. Mood swings, the inability for teens to interpret emotional signals or to judge danger are behaviors that are very much under the influence of this growth spurt and pruning process. No wonder teens need so much sleep. “The transition into puberty is analogous to the transition to being a baby,” says Charles Nelson, neuroscientist at University of Minnesota, “…a child suddenly is undergoing fairly substantial changes in their brain development at a very, very, rapid pace and at a period of time that only lasts a year or two. It’s a time when we really need to pay close attention to what’s happening to our kids.”
If you neglected to use Baby Einstein products with your infant, then you have a second chance as a parent of a teenager, only this time, you may not have a child who is so easy to manipulate. Preteen and teen brains are primed for music, soccer, and foreign languages--complex mental and physical systems of meaning--but not necessarily for adult interactions. "Our leading hypothesis ... is the 'use it or lose it' principle," says National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist Jay Giedd on Frontline. "If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they're lying on the couch or playing video games or [watching] MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive." We already know instinctively how important it is to turn off that computer and shoo the children outside. Now there is neurological evidence to support this instinct.
Last Sunday evening I was sent a humorous MoveOn.org Mother’s Day video  that you can personalize with any mother’s first and last name and suddenly have a video with “CNNBC” news anchors congratulating you by name as the “2009 Mother of the Year.” Katie and I watched the video together in disbelief. The personalized use of graphics is quite clever. Obama, with a “Coffman” graphic under his figure states, “We are proud of you. You are carrying on a vital task.” The “National Maternal Society” director described me as “selflessly contributing 52 hours of every day to people other than herself.” Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are clearly upset by "Coffman’s win." At the end of the video a news anchor states, “In other news, a study confirms that putting your hair back in a ponytail is not the same thing as taking a shower” -- a point that I found laugh out loud hilarious, but which Katie (who sleeps in her ponytail) found less than amusing.
Katie is fascinated with the sciences and with the chemistry of cooking. Thankfully, her hormonal surges do not seem to be affecting her interests in scienc e--just her relationships with authority. (I haven't really worried about the impact of my own drop in hormones...)
I wonder if conflict resolution is more complicated for a long distance mom of teenagers? Would Katie and I have fewer conflicts if I traveled less and stayed at home more? Not necessarily, say many of my friends with older children. One friend, another divorced mom with grown children, suggested to me that being with your children every day is not the most important factor in parenting. “What your kids remember is how you are when you are with them,” she offered.
Next time Katie goes barefoot, I’ll pack the tweezers…