Who Is Responsibe for Your Teenager’s Behavior? Good Enough Boundaries and Love are the Most Important Guides

teen behavior

One day, a thirteen-year-old boy was walking down the street, or maybe he was on his bike, or watching a movie, or doing homework, or playing ball. He could have been doing anything. His morphogenic time clock kicked in and turned on his testosterone pump. It wasn’t noticeable at first blush. But soon he was sleeping more. He got grumpy. He finally started growing and put on some height. His genitals grew and became active, with a mind of their own. Hair appeared over his lip, on his face, under his arms, and around his genitals. His voice began cracking. Whereas he used to have two eyebrows, now they seemed to have joined into one.

Humans blossom into sexual maturity for the same reason as the rest of nature—to propagate the species. Human consciousness leads us to assume that somehow we are outside the flow of biological nature. This is pure hubris. It is arrogant to think we are anything but biological creatures, like all biological creatures. We live out our capacities for survival and our trajectory of propagating the species through our unique rhythm of human morphogenesis and human consciousness. The most important species-specific aspect of the human animal is human consciousness, through which we live our lives. Obviously the physical changes are paramount. But the actual changes that take place are located in the play of consciousness. They are at the center of human adolescence – to  make our characters our own.

However, to understand adolescence we need to look, not at a snapshot in a moment of time, but the whole process of childrearing. This is a twenty year long transformation, as a child emerges from a zygote into a fully differentiated human being. If we used a time-lapse camera, we would see a one-celled zygote transform, in nine short months, into a baby who was twenty inches long, weighing in at eight pounds. And twenty years later, he would transform again into a man who was seventy-two inches long, weighing in at 170 pounds. Pretty remarkable.

The central transformation, leading up to adolescence, takes place in the realm of consciousness. At six weeks old, consciousness appears, as our original rudimentary play begins in the form of non-representational images. It is composed of our Authentic Being and its adaption to responsiveness, and abuse (depending on our literal circumstances). The rest of our lives are lived, no longer by automatic pilot, but as a living play in the theater of the brain.

By age three, our plays have matured sufficiently to become representational. We come to know ourselves as a ‘self’. We form a story that is generated by an adaptation to our loving or problematic environment. This story is foundational for all the rest of our development. Our unique temperament adapts to the reality of love and abuse to write our stories. See – “The Nature-Nurture Question – Nurture”.

Let’s use our time-lapse camera again to view the reciprocal relationship between mother and child in the realm of emotional relatedness. A baby’s transformations takes him from total enclosure in the womb to mother’s holding arms, then from her holding arms to off by himself. He rolls over. He sits. He crawls. He walks. He walks away, following his curiosity. He turns back to see mother watching him. He saw that she was. He was carried in her holding gaze. He goes off again, out of sight. He no longer needed to check in on her gaze. It is inside of him.  He carries her, carrying him in her gaze. He carries her in his heart. She is still there. Likewise, at every step of her baby’s growth, Mother would hold him once again in a new and differentiated way. Each boundary shift is accompanied by the pain of loss. She went from a full womb to an empty womb; from an empty womb to holding arms; from holding arms to empty arms; from empty arms to holding him in her gaze; to the baby out of sight, to the child held in her heart. He is still there.

By age four we have internalized the cultural world around us and incorporated it as magical stories. Then, in our childhood, from five to twelve, we do not have the creation of new plays. They are already formed. They become extended, modified, and deepened through childhood experience. At the same time, a child’s experience is filtered through the prism of his internal plays, as it refines those plays. In childhood, the parents and village draw an unbroken boundary around the child. That is where it is safe to learn and master the basics of education, skills, a body of cultural values, and a set of cultural beliefs. He will take in the myths of his family, as well as the myths of his culture. Childhood experience in the context of one’s unique character theater, further develops and nuances one’s plays, writing them into living memory. In addition, the child continues to be subject to the same loving or problematic home environment that was influential in creating his plays in the first place.

The job of adolescence is to master the skills of independent living to survive, feed, shelter, protect, and provide for ourselves, our mate, and our offspring. In our unique human consciousness, we live it out through social relatedness with family and tribe. We fulfill and transmit the culture, the values, and the art of living to our progeny. Our theater of operations shifts to direct experience, where the internal cast of characters, self and other, collide with life, unmediated by the parental world. The major processes of adolescence will transpire through the collision of our childhood self with experience.

In the teenage years everything changes. This is an eight year process by which the child makes his inner play his own. He does this by testing his childhood play in reality. This is the adolescent’s task. He will undertake the wherewithal for provision and protection by himself. In addition the child will move toward adult relatedness with another actual adult, unmediated by his relations with family and childhood friends. The adult fulfillment of relationship is intimacy. And he will establish his own autonomous relationship with a mate for love, sex, and children. He is impelled from within to stake his own claim in the world.

Direct experience results in a massive new cortical mapping, filtered through the limbic system, where a child gets elaborated into his adult self. Hence, the following is mapped in his brain: feelings, impulses, body sensations, sexual impulses, stimulations, fantasy, actions, and plots; sadomasochistic sensations of the body and plots; drink and drugs; physical and sensational actions of the body-self; the deeply powerful feelings of adolescence—the pain of rejection, the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of triumphs; and all of the newly opened plots of the internal drama played out on the projection screen of reality.

During adolescence, the child tests the limits of reality and himself. He emerges from the intact circle of his parents, tribe, and culture. The job of a teenager is to throw off the imposed rules of childhood. No longer saying yes to those values, he now says no – no to the rules and constrictions imposed in childhood. He will try out everything for himself. Possibilities are limitless. A teenager will test the boundaries of reality and the boundaries of himself. He will steer his way through experience to find out and fulfill who he is. He may chose new values or he may return, authentically, to the values of his parents. He must do a walkabout to test himself and find his own way.

Every teenager comes into collision with the smorgasbord of life’s temptations. The list of temptations is not long—sex, drugs, drink, gambling, eating (from gluttony to anorexia), reckless action and sensation-seeking, stealing and cheating, egotism, bullying, sadomasochistic attachment and anger. Why do some kids experiment with and then stop self-destructive behavior, while other kids go deeper into the dark side of life? The teenager who has had good-enough loving in childhood retains the presence of his Authentic-Being as the core of his self. The Authentic-Being is the rudder by which one navigates through the smorgasbord of experience and life’s temptations. When this adolescent strays too far in a self-destructive avenue, as all kids do, there is a quiet voice inside him that says, “What am I doing? I’ve got to stop this.” The Authentic-Being is the most important possession of an adolescent.

And why does one kid select one of the problematic temptations and reject the others? The actual constellation of the inner play, reflecting the unique array of temperament, deprivation and abuse, leaves one susceptible to different temptations. When love has not been good enough, kids will get fixated and stuck on one or more of the problematic temptations of life. The Authentic Being is a kind of gyroscope that rights him, from the inside, to find his way to a character of solid and constructive values.

Here’s the thing, a teenager’s judgment is not yet fully developed. Myelin sheath development follows a morphogenic timetable built into the genome. The neurons of the prefrontal lobes are not scheduled to myelinate until late adolescence. This area of the cortex houses intention, planning, and judgment. Consequently, the large-scale frontal lobe synaptic mapping, in concert with the myelinization of the prefrontal lobes, are at one with the consolidation of adult judgment at the end of adolescence. Prior to this, the younger adolescent operates without fully evolved frontal lobes. Developmentally, the younger adolescent operates as if he has had a prefrontal lobotomy. You may have noticed that teenage judgment is not of the highest order. It coalesces from adolescent experience.

In fact, throughout the teenage years, children need their parents more than ever. This is a time when parents and society must be there to provide holding and care, no longer as a solid circle around their children, but now as a partial circle. They surround their teenager with a circle of broken lines. He will go out through the spaces of the broken circle to venture into new and direct experience. He has to bump into the consequences of experience for himself in order to find his own way. If he goes too far, he can retreat back to the security of the boundaries, provided by his parents and society—like a child who cuts his knee, he turns to his parents to be held and quieted, and then once again, goes back out to take on the world on his own.

Adolescents don’t make being a parent easy. But being a parent isn’t easy. Like transition in childbirth, they break the mother, and then she re-gathers herself to be there for them. The most difficult and necessary part of the job description is to hang in there. This is what they need. There will be many times when a teenager goes out through the broken lines. The parents hold their breath and wonder if their adolescent will make it. Then they breathe easy again. It’s probably a good thing that parents don’t witness everything their children are doing. The hard work of being a parents is drawing the line. The teenager is still learning, and learns from taking responsibility. He still needs his parents’ careful vigilance, guidance, and boundaries so that he does not go too far astray.

It is very hard to raise a child in today’s world. It’s hard enough with intact families and cultures. It is far more difficult when so much of society has been broken. We have seen that the raising of a child and his character develop throughout his entire life. It does not start in adolescence.

Yes, a teenager is responsible for his actions. And so are we – not only from the provision of boundaries, but from the boundaries and love of childrearing all through life. We play a major role in fostering the character of our children. There is no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect child. Parents can do their best, and care and hope for the best. Each teenager evolves through adolescence into becoming his own unique character. By the time he becomes an adult, he is then fully responsible for himself. As we know, character is destiny.


Image Credit copyrighted by MACx

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