Teenagers! Wow! Many people avoid teens, misunderstand teens, and generally have a disdain for the mischievous youngsters, often forgetting that they were once teens themselves. Child psychologist, Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and author of many, many books, described the teen years this way: imagine you being in a small rowboat with your teen son or daughter and you have to paddle your way to the other side of a lake. Suddenly, a great storm comes, tossing your boat to and fro. Your job as a parent is simply to survive the trip! That is exactly what the teen years are like! It’s all about survival! If you can reach the other side with your family intact, consider yourself successful!

For young people who have been placed in foster care due to abuse, neglect, or being adopted (possibly through international adoption due to war, poverty, or abandonment), the teen years can be quite traumatic. Consider the following facts from the Dave Thomas Foundation:

- Most foster youth in America go through multiple placements before turning 18 years of age, some having 8-10 placements or more.

- Many teens have experienced abuse of some type in their lives, either physical, sexual, or emotional.

- There are 20,000 teens that age out of the foster care system each year, making them more vulnerable to homelessness, incarceration, addiction, and unplanned pregnancies.

The reFramed Podcast is a service of the Gladney Center for Adoption, located in Fort Worth, Texas. Emily Morehead, LPC, Research and Curriculum Supervisor, is the host for this podcast. In Season 1, Episode 7, Emily interviews Dr. Connie Siciliano Avila, Ph.D., LP, LPC-S, and Ashley Scott, MS, LPC, RPT.

Dr. Avila is a licensed psychologist and professional counseling supervisor who owns a private practice called Mind Sprouts. Ms. Scott owns a private practice called North Dallas Counseling Group. They both work with adults and adolescents.

They discuss the concept of “the teenage brain.” They explain what happens to a person’s brain when they transition from a child into an adolescent. They explain the neurological, chemical, and even physical changes a brain undergoes in eliminating the negative, childish aspects of the “child brain” and replacing them with the more mature adult brain. They give some warning signs of what to expect, (especially) from teens who have been traumatized. They also give some helpful tools for parents who are struggling with teens to use.

5 Takeaways from Emily’s reFramed Podcast

Emily and her guests made a big impression on me as they discussed teens and their brains. They list three struggles many teens go through, one warning, and one intervention. Taken together, they give an accurate perspective on the teen brain and give us hope that we can assist our teenager in navigating the turbulent waters of adolescence. Typical teens already have turbulent waters to navigate, but foster youth and internationally-born adoptees have additional trauma to deal with.

  1. Depression. Many teens struggle with depression because of the enormous chemical changes taking place in the brain. Many teens struggle because of the situations they are struggling with in life. Others become clinically depressed because of genetic lines from their parents. Dr. Avila suggests reaching out to professional therapists in the field for help if your child needs help. They may need a diagnosis, especially if the depression leads to suicidal ideation. You can research these professionals on the Internet or through your insurance. The key is getting your teen connected to the community so they do not feel so isolated and alone.

  2. Addiction. Emily and her guests give great warning signs of addiction in the podcast. Dr. Avila warns that if your teens’ school grades have dropped dramatically, you are getting calls from their school, they are isolating themselves in their rooms, or their moods and behaviors change, it may be an indication of drug use. Dr. Avila also warns that changes in behavior could also be a warning sign of other issues, such as harassment or bullying. Parents need to learn to listen without reacting. Listening is a major way to connect with your teen.

  3. Sexuality. It is an amazing thing to witness a 10-year-old boy, who at one time thinks a particular girl has cooties, become mesmerized by that same girl by the time he turns 14! This process is called puberty. It is during this time that not only the body changes, but also the mind, the brain, and the whole social structure of a teen’s life! He thinks about sex way more often than he used to and may make efforts to pursue the opposite sex (or the same sex) more than he ever used to in the past.

Foster and adoptive teens may have a more difficult time during the teen years because of past trauma. These kiddos may have been the victims of harassment, molestation, or sexual assault. Because they have been victims, some of these kids (though not all) may experiment with others in the same way they were experimented on. These kids need our help and our support so they understand they must appropriately work through these new feelings.

  1. Social media. The Internet can be a source of connection, humor, and information. However, with the positive, there can also be some negative. Social media can add anxiety and stress to life, especially for girls, because they can be bullied, teased, or harassed. Parents need to balance giving their teen the freedom to explore the Internet and protecting him or her from potentially dangerous situations. Remember, some adopted teens may be teased because they are adopted, because they do not look like the rest of their family, or because they are of a different race. These factors cannot be swept under the rug. Teens need help and guidance on social media, and doors of communication should be opened.

  1. Support system. In the podcast, Ms. Scott states that parents need to listen to the people who support their teens. Many foster/adoptive parents like to be the Lone Ranger. They rarely ask for help for fear that the public will look down on them. But if parents of typical teens need help, how much more do the adoptive and foster parents of teens! The more supporters in a teen’s life, the better. Do not feel bad if your teen does not want to talk to you (that may be a blessing in disguise, haha!); your teen may be better at expressing herself to another trusted adult than you. That’s perfectly ok. There are two types of support systems every foster/adopted teen should have: professional and natural.

- A professional support is a paid individual who may need to come on board as part of a team to help your young person navigate the turbulent world of adolescence. They could include counselors, mentors, teachers, tutors, social workers, probation officers, etc. The more trauma the teen has experienced in his or her life, the bigger the team may need to be.

- A natural support is a person who is naturally a part of the teen’s life, regardless of the circumstance. This could be a grandparent, an uncle, a coach, a friend’s parents, a family friend, a boss, clergy members, etc. These people are not paid to be in the teen’s life. They are not obligated to listen to the teen. They are simply there because they care for the youth. Do not underestimate the influence of a natural supporter. They may have more success than the professional.

Adolescent Development

Change, change, change. We can describe the teen years in one word: change. It is the transformation of a child into an adult. Going from having no responsibility to taking on responsibility. Being cared for as a child to raising a child themselves, all of a sudden. Transitioning from a state of immaturity to maturity. It is a time of great upheaval to the way life once was. Things are never the same again, nor should they be. Here is what can be expected of a typical teen going through adolescence. Adolescence is the period, generally between ages 13-18; between entering puberty to reaching full adulthood.

- Physical. Teenagers go through quick and astonishing changes in their bodies. Sexual organs develop. Muscles grow. Strength increases. Athleticism is attuned. Teens usually grow a few inches in height in a few short years. All of this can be exciting and/or quite disconcerting if a youth is not prepared for this change.

- Emotionally. Most parents notice the once calm and placid child has now turned into a raging monster! They go from easy-going to weepy. From friendly to hostile. From Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde! It does not take much to trigger your teen into a major meltdown. The only difference between your 2-year-old and your 12-year-old is size and age!

- Mentally. Suddenly, teens see things from a different perspective than they did as a child. They can understand abstract ideas, not just concrete ideas. They can plan for the future. They can hold intelligent conversations. They can see their past as part of a whole.

- Socially. For many children, their whole world is their parents. A 3- or 4-year-old wants to marry Mommy or Daddy. When that child becomes a teen, their peers have now supplanted their parents as the most influential person in their lives. They socialize in groups. The start noticing the opposite sex. They start dating and start thinking about and developing their sexuality.

- Spiritually. Teens start to think about God and religion more during adolescence. They will question their parents’ choice of religion (or no religion) and start to make spiritual choices on their own. They start to think about life after death. They start to think about their own worth, value, and purpose in life.

- Neurologically. Ms. Scott introduces the concept of “synaptic pruning and myelination,” which is the brain’s way of taking out the old, childish ways of thinking and inputting new, adult ways of thinking. Therefore, there is a lot of impulsivity during these years.

In conclusion, Dr. Avila states that her number one tip for parents in their parenting journey is to allow their kids to be themselves. We all have expectations of what we want our kids to turn out to be, but their goals may be very different from ours. It is important to find a balance between shaping and liberating.

Ms. Scott’s number one tip is to keep open lines of communication. In our busy world of streaming, social media, and extracurricular activities, we can get so busy doing things for our kids that we lose track of simply listening to our kids. Maybe they don’t want to go to college like we thought they would; perhaps they would rather go out for music or drama rather than sports; perhaps they are struggling with adoption issues like missing other siblings or coping with biological parent issues. We will never know if we do not actively listen. Here are some of my suggestions on how to communicate with teens, if it does not come easy:

Journaling. At the end of each day, have your teen journal what they are feeling or a good thing and bad thing that happened that day. In the morning, read the journal and respond without judgment, including one positive, affirming thing about the teen.

Texting. If teens would rather text than journal, use this method.

Music Videos. Have your teen choose one video they like each week and send it to you, or watch it together and discuss how you both feel about it.

Art. Many youth are artsy. Have him or her draw or paint something about your family, their school, or their relationships.

Video games or board games. Each week, have a game night.

Movie night. Teens are never too old for a movie night. Alternate between a movie of your choice and a movie of their choice each week.

Date night or girls night out or guys night out. At least once a month, spend some 1:1 time with your teen. Mark it on your calendar and do not cancel! Even if he or she complains, this is a way to make memories.

Each one of these items is not necessarily a task but a way to open the natural doors of communication. Choose one that works best for your teen. I guarantee it will work better than bursting into his or her room, plopping down on the bed, and saying, “Let’s talk!”

There are other great podcasts by other agencies regarding foster care, adoption, and family in general. The one thing that makes the reFramed Podcast unique is you can listen to the podcast audio as well as view the podcast discussion video in the studio, directly on Gladney’s website. The reFramed Podcast is a service provided by the Gladney Center for Adoption, which is in Fort Worth, Texas. Gladney offers domestic infant adoption, international adoption, and foster care adoption. You can find the reFramed Podcasts on iTunes or Google Play.

You can learn more about the guests in the show notes: https://resource.adoptionsbygladney.com/reframing-the-teenage-brain.

Adoption.com is a subsidiary of Gladney Center for Adoption.