As a parent of a teenager I am sure you have experienced frustration in having even a simple conversation.
Getting more than a one or two word answer from them seems to be nearly impossible! Most parents just accept this as the “teenage phase” as their adolescents are tying to assert themselves and figure out who they are.
This is, in part, accurate. But a brief study on the relationship between the brain and communication shows that something else might be going on!
We are each created with three parts to our brain:
- Reptilian Brain – this is present from birth and it’s purpose is to continually be scanning for danger and threats. It has automatic functions and never sleeps!
- Mammalian Brain – this is typically developed by age 6-7. This part of the brain sends alerts to the Reptilian brain regarding what to do when potential danger/alerts come its way. This portion of the brain helps to calm us down. This is what we tap into when we are developing coping skills. This part of the brain is very rationalizing (our actions) but not rational.
- Neo-Cortex Brain – begins to develop in later childhood and carries through to adolescence and adulthood. The purpose of this part of the brain is to modify and moderate impulse behaviors. This portion of the brain believes that it makes 90% of the daily decisions but this is wrong.
The Reptilian and Mammalian brain allows our responses to get big in order to scare the threat away or small in order to avoid the potential threat. Essentially these two portions of the brain are our default. This drives our behavior, our thoughts, our actions and our responses to people in every situation without taking into consideration that Neo-Cortex portion of our brain (which helps us function as an adolescent and adult).
The greatest threat that the Reptilian brain is scanning for is to find the answer to the question “do I belong?” What research has found is that without people, we cannot survive. We were created for relationship. Everything we SAY on a day to day basis, in any situation, is said to get one of six needs met: Belonging, Autonomy, Safety/Security, Self Expression, Purpose/Significance and Connection.
Conflict comes between people when we are not getting a need met, or when the needs we are looking to be met are different than what the other person is trying to get met. For instance, if I, as a parent, am trying to get my need for connection met and my teenager is trying to get their need for autonomy met, it could create significant conflict, even an argument!
Unfortunately, when we are not getting our needs met, we scheme as to how we can get them met. Maybe it’s picking a fight, accusing, nit-picking, blaming, playing the victim, making a big deal out of something that doesn’t need to be/blowing things out of proportion, etc.
An interesting piece to this is that in conversation, arguments and conflict we often use questioning as a tactic to build our case, accuse and/or prove a point. Questions raise anxiety by 40%! Remember the bottom ⅔ of our brain is scanning for threat…a threat could be as simple as searching for the right answer to a question.
So in the mind of your teen, questions become a trap. All questions can be turned into statements. These statements reduce anxiety and allows your teen to feel safe (even in the midst of an argument!) How was your day? What did you learn? can feel very direct and asked hoping to get a specific answer/piece of information rather than seeking the heart of your teen. Tell me how your day was… Tell me what you learned… These statements allow some of our deepest needs to be met.
For the bottom ⅔ of our brain (the Reptilian and Mammalian portions), listening is one of the primary things we can do to reassure that sense of belonging. The true communication skill to learn is finding words to say that the receiving person will hear. Words are a way that we hide. When we truly listen our greatest need of belonging is being met and the walls of defense are taken down. The way that someone learns how to listen is to be listened to.
Finally, in the midst of conversation or conflict, it’s important to remember that it often doesn’t matter what the INTENT of the statement was, what matters is the effect it had on the person receiving it. Respond to the effect.
Laura Anderson, MMFT is a Marriage and Family Counselor in Nashville, TN who has worked with teenagers for 12 years. If you are in the Nashville area you can find her here