When our children are born, we are idealistic in our dreams for them. We believe that we will be able to teach them all kinds of things, they will understand what we are teaching them, follow our advice, and thank us for it when they become parents. You did that too, right?
As parents, we want our children to grow and learn and we want to teach them how to think about the world around them. Our expectations are built upon these things happening. So we expect that when we give instructions that they will be carried out without reminders. We also expect that the life lessons we have taught our pre-teen throughout the years will be acted upon consistently. And we certainly expect that chores and responsibilities, after years of practice, will not be a problem at all. In short, we expect them to mature into people who think and act like we do. Like adults.
Not so fast my friend. Allow me to introduce you to two parts of their developing brain that say otherwise.
The amygdala, as part of the limbic system, is the primitive beginning of the brain where basic emotions (ie – fear, anger), gut reactions (ie – freeze, fight or flight), as well as instinct live. Fundamentally, the brain’s survival mechanism. It has been said that until somewhere between 11 and 13 years of age, this is the part of the brain that is essentially in control. It turns out that research now supports this idea revealing that the amygdala matures for girls at around 10 years old, and for boys at around 12 years old. This is far ahead of the other structures of the brain.
What this means is that it’s entirely possible that the operant mechanism for decision making in a child under the age of 12 is… survival. “What should I do when in trouble?” Survival = blame, lie, escape. “What should I do when my siblings or peers are pressuring me?” Survival = go along, pretend, fake it.
This desire to survive trumps all decision making. In fact, rational decision making (like an adult) is not due to arrive on the scene for another 12 years. This is due to the pre-frontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to develop.
I have covered this in a previous post, but suffice it to say that until around age 24, expect your child to be thinking with jello. That is when adult-like reasoning arrives in a developing brain. The part of the brain that governs executive functioning, emotional regulation, and decision making is just not available yet.
When you consider these two brain development factors (survival until 12, executive functioning with adult thinking coming online around 24), should we expect consistent rational decision making, executive functioning, inhibition control, and emotional regulation from children and teens? No, we should not.
While coaching many parents of teens, who were complaining about the decision making of their teen, I have said numerous times, “Don’t expect adult thinking and decision making from someone who does not have the brain of an adult.”
What you can expect is for children and teens to not act like an adult. Expect them to act like a work in progress, to make mistakes, to struggle with emotional management, and to make decisions that you don’t agree with. Lower your expectations to something that they can reach.
Maintaining out of reach expectations sets them up, and you, for failure.