Recently there has been a rash of school related racist and anti-semitic incidents; football plays being named using holocaust language. Rascist and anti-semitic graffiti in bathrooms, and school walls. The good news is that there is a long overdue heightened awareness and community involvement in addressing it. Does this mean that teens are racist, anti-Semitic? Not necessarily.
There is no excuse for these hurtful words and actions. It is the job of
families, schools, and communities to teach and model compassion, and to help children understand the affects that words have. For every thing said, someone is affected. But just because teens say it, doesn’t mean that they believe it. And before we start putting detrimental life long labels on teens that may have acted without thinking, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from.
Research has shown that the teen brain is much more activated in the amygdala, (the feeling center) than in the frontal cortex, (the thinking center). This is why teens feel first and think later! The brain’s natural edit button, letting us know when to keep our thoughts to ourselves, is not yet fully operational. Teens can say and do things that can be hurtful and even dangerous. Just ask any parent of a teen!!
Adding to this over-reactive and emotional brain is the hyper-self-consciousness that all teens feel. David Elkind, author of the book: All Grown Up and No Place To Go, calls this the “imaginary audience.” In adolescence, a new level of thinking emerges, resulting in a hyper-awareness of what other people are thinking about them. This results in the influence of peer pressure, and worry that not conforming to the group norm presented to them, might result in the dreaded exclusion and humiliation. This can cause teens to behave in ways contrary to what they know to be right. If your crowd at a school’s sporting event starts chanting, “You killed Jesus,”regardless of your own beliefs, the need to be invisible and a part of the crowd, can trump the measuring of right and wrong. Better to be bad than to be shunned! This is powerful stuff to a vulnerable teen.
Teens are also naturally self-centered, narcissistic, and egocentric due to this excess of emotion, and self-consciousness. (Don’t worry, they outgrow this) Often their ability to see and/or care about another person’s perspective no matter how much they have hurt, disrespected, and maybe even threatened them, can be clouded.
And finally, as teens seek to develop their identity, they are bombarded with incoming new perceptions of the world. Certainly family and community are big influencers, as is the media. The presidential election is a perfect example of highly emotional, name-calling, racial stereotyping, bullying, and physical altercations, sanctioned by adults! (So be careful how you talk about this at home.) All this is tailor made modeling for the drama teens crave. Most teens won’t read the full article in the Boston Globe, analyzing the intricacies of the political game, but instead will see the attention that bad behavior receives. Bring it on, consequences be damned!
So, a highly emotional brain; a hyper-sense of self-consciousness; a lack of experience in the world, developmental narcissism; impulsivity, a sense of invincibility, and a culture that loves bad behavior, that’s a loaded deck for a teen! As I say, these are not excuses, just explanations. Simply telling teens to be better, be kinder, respect differences, and then meting out consequences when boundaries are crossed, will alone not change behavior. What changes behavior, is to provide strategy and experience. Most teens stay close to what is familiar. So much of their life feels out of control; their brain, their body, their feelings, and their future, that they don’t venture much out of their comfort zone. Kids stake out their territory whether in the school cafeteria, or in their communities. This can make people who are different from them seem more threatening.
So here is what you can do:
Challenge teen’s thinking in stereotypes. Provide teens with structured opportunities to get to know people who differ from them. At the 22nd Annual Youth Congress, students suggested “mix-it up dinners where students sit with “classmates they don’t know.” As a family, seek out experiences where your children can interact with people from all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs.
Model inclusion. The adults in children’s lives are the most influential in transmitting values of acceptance. When I was a fresh out of grad school therapist, I was seeing a couple that were experiencing difficulty with their teen. In a predominately catholic town, their daughter had befriended a Jewish boy. The parents used phrases like “those Jews” in describing their worry about this relationship. With fear and anxiety about ruining my tenuous therapeutic connection, I timidly said, “I am one of “those Jews.”
Anticipate and strategize: Help your teen to be prepared for situations that might challenge them. Because of their inexperience, many teens end up doing the wrong thing because they don’t know what else to.
Adolescence is a messy stage. Teen behavior is layered. Good kids do bad things; caring and kind kids can be cruel and insensitive; and sensible and smart kids can beimpulsive and reckless. As teens move through this stage from childhood to adulthood,they are confronted with new feelings, new thoughts, and new impressions of their world.They are without precedent and experience and often react with emotion, not thought.But teens and adults alike share so many common, human experiences, regardless ofclass, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Let these be the bridge to mutual respect.