About this Episode
If you’re a parent of tweens or teens, you’ve probably wondered about the difference between “typical” teen angst—that is, normal worries, fears, and struggles associated with adolescence—and when there’s a deeper issue that might require talk therapy (or possibly, medication). Today, psychoanalyst and clinical social worker Erica Komisar joins us to share her experience and knowledge from more than 30 years in private practice. Hear what she has to say about identifying teens’ challenges and struggles, when to seek outside help, how to provide support at home, and the best circumstances to have deeper conversations with your teen. Listen as Dr. Amy, Teri, and Erica discuss everything from boundaries and flexibility to brain development and how parents can serve as the emotional regulators for their teens as they navigate the transition to adulthood.
About Erica Komisar
Erica Komisar is a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and parent guidance expert who has been in private practice in New York City for over 30 years. A graduate of Georgetown and Columbia universities and the New York Freudian Society, she is a psychological consultant bringing parenting workshops to clinics, schools, corporations, and childcare settings. She is a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Daily News. She is also a contributing editor to the Institute for Family Studies and appears regular on Fox and Friends and Fox 5 News. Erica is the author of “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters” and “Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.”
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DR. AMY: Hi, smart moms and dads. Welcome to another episode of The Brainy Moms podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Amy Moore, coming to you today from Colorado Springs, Colorado. And I am joined by my lovely co-host, Teri Miller, who’s also in Colorado Springs today. Teri and I are really excited to welcome our guest, Erica Komisar. Erica is a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert who has been in private practice in New York City for over 30 years. a graduate of Georgetown and Columbia Universities and the New York Freudian Society, she is a psychological consultant, bringing parenting workshops to clinics, schools, corporations, and childcare settings. She’s a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Daily News. She’s also a contributing editor to the Institute for Family Studies and appears regularly on Fox and Friends and Fox 5 News. Erica is the author of “Being There; Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters,” and “Chicken Little, The Sky Isn’t Falling; Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.” Welcome, Erica.
ERICA: Thank you for having me.
DR. AMY: We’re excited to have a conversation with you today. And so like, we like to start each episode with having our guests just give us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in writing about adolescence and what’s happening right now.
ERICA: Well, my background is that I’m a psychoanalyst. I’m also a social worker. And I would say that first as a social worker, the environment matters to me. Meaning, it’s not just the internal environment of a child, but the actual real environment of a child. And what is the real environment of a child? We are their parents, their family, the environment they grow up in. So I would say being a social worker before I was a psychoanalyst influenced my interest in “the real” And there’s my dog who I’m going to let in as I speak you. And so, yeah. So, and as a psychoanalyst, there was so much information that I felt parents didn’t have in terms of raising healthy children and adolescents that I felt it was my responsibility to take the information that I’ve learned over the past 30 years and really help parents to understand things that really only clinicians knew before. And so that’s really why I wrote the book; to take 30 plus years of experience and really bring it to parents and help them to understand not only the neurological development of children and adolescents, but also the emotional development. So basically taking things that were really only professionals were privy to and making them accessible to parents.
DR. AMY: Yeah, so you scaled what you do clinically.
ERICA: Exactly, exactly. And some of the issues that I was seeing, particularly with adolescents, had to do with, you know, you’d say all parents want to raise healthy, resilient adolescents. But there was a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. And I just felt like I wanted to clarify it and the book was meant to really create kind of a way for parents to have a manual, so to speak, of how to raise resilient, healthy adolescents.
TERI: Well, your book is so comprehensive. It is, it is kind of like the to-do book for, yeah, how to parent teens, how to parent adolescents. But we’re going to hone in on just a few specific areas. And I want to start out to, I want to start out helping our listeners look at what is the difference between anxiety, what we’re going to call true anxiety, adolescent anxiety, and just normal worries and fears and struggles. Talk to us about that difference.
ERICA: So well, first, what is anxiety? So anxiety is not a disorder. So that’s the first thing. It’s a symptom of our psyche, of our emotional system. It’s a symptom of our threat-sensing part of our brain working. So we need to feel fearful about real threats. So when we have real threats in our life, whether in the old days, I guess it would have been a predator chasing us. But today we sometimes have real things to be frightened of. And so, you know, it turns on what we call the HPA axis, which is the part of our brain. It turns on the threat sensing part of our brain. Anxiety is a sign of kind of a hyper vigilant system, meaning, think of it as you turn on a light in the kitchen and you leave it on all night long, or maybe for days. And essentially the light, you know, stays on too long and then burns out. So you’d say the threat-sensing part of our brain is on overload, right? So that’s what anxiety is. And I always like to distinguish anxiety and depression for people so they really have a good working definition. Depression is preoccupation with past losses and anxiety is preoccupation with future losses that haven’t occurred and may never occur and may not be based in, in real threats, right? So that’s what, so anxiety and depression have a lot in common. How you distinguish just regular old fear and some anxiety, which may be mild anxiety, which may be fear of a real threat, right? Is when intense symptoms last consistently for at least two weeks or more. So we can each have any individual, whether it’s a child or an adolescent or an adult, can have a day or a few days or a week when they feel anxious about any number of things. And many of them could be real. And then, you know, if it lasts more than two weeks and it seems not to be based in a real threat, then we say, “Right, Houston, we have a problem.” And it may be more of an issue that needs to be dealt with in terms of contacting a mental health professional.
TERI: Let me, let me ask you this. The whole concept of anxiety and like social anxiety, it seems to be kind of trendy right now with adolescents and young adults. It seems to be this very trendy self-diagnosis that teenagers will decide. “I have anxiety. I have social anxiety.” What do you think about that? How that seems to be this growing popular thing for young adults to own?
ERICA: Well, I suppose you could say a feature of normative adolescence is social anxiety. So I think we’ve also gotten into pathologizing things that are normal. You’d say the part of the brain that is the threat-sensing part of the brain is in a hyper alert state in adolescence, which makes adolescents more self-conscious, more aware of the shadows around them, more aware of criticism, more sensitive to criticism, which is why social media is so devastating, particularly to young girls. Because they’re, the threat-sensing part of their brain is so, so very active. So, that social anxiety that you’re talking about is just a normal part of adolescence. And I think rather than telling adolescents that everybody’s feeling what you’re feeling, and it’s a normal part of your brain development, and it will pass developmentally, but that everybody else is feeling the same way. Everybody is worrying about what other people think, and this is just a part of your development. We tell them, right, you know, you’re clinically anxious and we need to take you, we need to get you on medication. Now there is clinical anxiety. And so we don’t want to ignore when they have real symptoms, but we also want to understand that it’s up to us as parents to help them to understand what’s real and what’s not real. Right? So the idea of social anxiety is a normative part of adolescence.
DR. AMY: So then what, what red flag should parents look for or how can they distinguish between what’s normally happening among all adolescents and when they need to get professional help for their teen?
ERICA: Right. So one of the first clues that they need help is social isolation. So adolescents need peers, they need friends. If they don’t have them and they’re socially isolated, not for a day. I’m not talking about, “I feel shitty, I came home from school, I had a bad day, bad thing happened, I’m locking myself in my room.” Remember, two weeks or more. So if your child comes home and they’re having a bad day, as parents, we are the external regulators for our children’s emotions. Meaning they need us straight through adolescence, which is through 25, because adolescence is 9 to 25. It starts earlier than we thought, ends later. We are, think of it is like dialysis. You know, when your kidney isn’t working, you go and have dialysis. It’s an external thing that helps you to process all the toxins in your body. Straight through adolescence, they rely on us still as parents to help them to regulate their emotions, to process their feelings and their experiences that we’re having that are causing them to feel certain things. So you can go and try to help them to regulate those feelings, but I wouldn’t judge one day of going into your room and slamming the door and being isolated as isolation. Isolation is two weeks or more of not wanting to see friends, withdrawing from friends and social activities, withdrawing from school, you know, really not wanting to go to school, you know, developing a school phobia where they get sick again and again and again, and really not wanting to go to school. And then we know that something may … Remember, the first thing I say to parents is, “Don’t assume it’s not a real threat.” First thing is, again, this is as a social worker, you want to assume there is a real threat. So when children develop depression and anxiety, don’t let any psychiatrist tell you, “Oh, we’re just going to medicate the symptom away and that’s fine.” You want to understand what the real threat is to them. Something is threatening them. It could be at school. It could be school itself. It could be the academic work and feeling they can’t keep up or, you know, it’s overwhelming them. It could be the social issue. It could be a social issue at school. It could be bullying. It could be, you know, their best friend dropped them to join another group and now they’re feeling isolated or, you know, you want to look to the real first, before you assume it’s imaginary, right? Because some of it’s real. As I said, anxiety is a signal feeling that says some there’s might be a real threat. And so that’s what we call psychosocial stressors. The real threat might be in the family. It might be that you’re not getting along with your spouse and they’re subject to the conflict. It might be their fear that you’re going to get a divorce. It might be a divorce. It might be a family member is sick and it’s brought up fears of dying. Psychosocial stressors are the main underlying reason for anxiety and depression. So as a society, we’ve become very superficial. We don’t really want to know what’s under the symptom. We just want to medicate the symptom away. So as a parent, right, you want to find out what the real threats are that are causing those feelings. So social isolation is something to look for. Any changes, real changes in their activity level, in their energy level, in their sleep patterns, in their eating patterns, any major changes that you see that are sustainable changes that are lasting more than two weeks. You know, these are some of the things you want to look for. Any expressions of self-criticism or self-hatred that are very intense. You know, “I suck” or “I’m not good at this,” or, you know, and then consistently really self-criticism and self-hating feelings that they’re expressing and any hopeless feelings, you know, the idea that their life isn’t worth living, you know, again, if you really listen, your teenagers give you a lot of clues, you know, life isn’t worth, and parents often ignore it saying, “Oh, that’s just being a kid.” But no, you need to listen, you know, if they say life isn’t worth living and, you know, I don’t see a way out and, you know, these are all clues that they need help.
TERI: And then we know that teens can be resistant to intervention. Of any sort. So what, what language do you suggest that parents use when they want to get help for their teen professional help?
ERICA: Well, I always say to parents, you know, be the authority without being authoritative. And that means that, approaching it in a way where you say, “I’m worried about you.” And state the symptoms that you observe that are concerning you, you know, and we say three or more symptoms for at least two weeks. So state the three symptoms you see. You know, “I’ve noticed, I wonder, you know, I’ve noticed that you’re, you know, sleeping more. I’ve noticed that you’re more isolated. I’ve noticed that you seem more serious, a little bit more sad and a little bit more hopeless and saying things that are a little bit more hopeless than usual. And I’m concerned. I’m concerned about you. I’m worried.” And that’s a way to meter your response rather than coming at them and saying, “Oh, my God. You’re anxious and I’ve got to rush you to the hospital.” And, you know, you need to be able to regulate your emotions as a parent to help your child regulate theirs. And then once you open up the discussion of, “I’m worried about you,” that then opens up the next discussion of what can we do about it? What should we do about this? And this is what we, you know, and again, this is barring the fact that if they have suicidal ideation. If they say, “I want to hurt myself” or “I want to kill myself,” or “I’m thinking about hurting myself,” you rush them right to an emergency room. But otherwise, the idea is first to turn to a talk therapist, a feelings therapist, who’s more what we call psychodynamic. And that’s the first step, not a psychiatrist. Unless they’re suicidal. Because the psychiatrist is not going to help you to figure out what is underlying those symptoms. The psychiatrist is just going to give, is basically someone who manages pain. And that’s really not what you want to do. If you have a brain tumor, you don’t want to take a Tylenol because you have a headache. You want to get to the underlying causes of it, right? And treat the underlying causes. So don’t go to a psychiatrist right away unless you have suicidal ideation, or unless you’re vegetatively depressed and can’t get out of bed, or you’re having serious panic attacks. You want to go to a talk therapist first, and that talk therapist will then refer your child to a psychiatrist if it’s needed. And that’s the mistake that most people make. They send them right to a psychiatrist because they, “Oh, it’s an MD. They’re the best.” And the truth is, they’re the best at medicating very serious pathology and, and medicating away symptoms, really understand the underlying causes. So first stop on the train is to go to a talk therapist, who is a feelings doctor, essentially. And then that person will then involve a psychiatrist if they deem it necessary.
TERI: That’s, this is such good, relevant, important advice. So I feel like this is such important information for our listeners to hear because, I mean, I’ve got several teenagers. I’ve had several teenagers go through this, and I think it’s incredibly confusing as parents when our kids are not doing well. Yeah, what’s the difference between this really is a worry, I need to do something. This is just normal, you know, teenage fears. So. Everything you just said, I would say to the listeners, rewind a little bit, go listen to that again. Everything she just said, that’s so good, so important. How do we step in and help? How do we know the difference?
DR. AMY: Yeah, so I want to go back to the language. I think you did a great job explaining what we need to look for and how to distinguish true anxiety from typical fear and real threats, right? And I love that how you encourage parents to be curious about what is really happening at school or in the environment. Can you talk a little bit more about the language parents could use to encourage kids who are just experiencing the typical stress that comes with being an adolescent?
ERICA: Well, Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers said, “What is mentionable is manageable.” And so I like to tell that to teenagers because they’re used to not mentioning things. And sometimes they don’t mention what they’re feeling because they feel their parents won’t be open, won’t understand, will judge what they’re saying, will try to cheer them up. So what I say to parents is first you have to be self-aware and really good receivers of the information, and create a kind of relationship with them where they can be open and bring to you whatever their concerns are, whatever their experiences are, whatever their fears are. Again, without judgments, without censorship, without overreacting, you know, the idea of being calm, listening more than you speak, being non-judgmental. These are all things that make for a very open environment. So the first thing is to create an environment, you know, create a fertile ground to plant the seeds of having an open relationship with your children, right? If there are certain topics in the family that are off limits, if there are certain things that, you know, you don’t talk about in your, in your family like sex or like racism or like gender and sexual identity or like, you know, bullying, or if there are things that just parents, you know, don’t want to hear you’re not allowed to bring to the table, then kids won’t bring it. But if you create an open environment, that’s the first step. And then to check in regularly. I mean, and you can’t check in regularly on your terms. You have to check in regularly by reading their social cues and making sure that they’re open in that moment. So I use a term in my book. “You have to be there when the door opens.” And what I mean by that is both concrete logistical thing, because teenagers close their door and don’t want to—they communicate on their own terms in their own time. And so if you’re there when their physical door opens because they’re coming out to get a snack or they’re coming out to take a break from work or they’ve come home from school and you happen to be there, you know, the old adage of the mom or the dad in the kitchen making chocolate chip cookies or sitting and having a cup of tea and you’re there when they come home. Guess what? You have a greater chance of having that open dialogue with them where you can check in with them, where you can listen to them, where you can help them to process their experiences and their feelings that day. The other time, interestingly, that they’re open is right before they go to bed. But the interesting thing about that is because adolescents go to bed later than us because they have something called sleep-wake phase delay because they don’t produce melatonin until later. Adolescents don’t go to bed until between, usually between 11 and 2 in the morning.
DR. AMY: When we’re exhausted. Right?
ERICA: Right. So you are asleep. Right? So the idea is, you know, if you come home from work and you knock on their door and you say, “I’m here,” the narcissistic parental, “I’m home, honey, I’m ready to process your day.” They’re not, they’re just going to say, “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” So you may have missed the opportunity. You know, it’s sort of like jumper. If you have to, you have to wait for the opportunity. There’s no harm in knocking on their door, but you can’t get insulted when they say, “I don’t want to talk. I want to be left alone.” So, you know, there is the advantage that parents have who are more physically around is that they are also, they also catch the moment, you know, like catching a firefly, they catch the moment when their adolescent is open to process these feelings. Yeah, so that’s, that’s a very big thing, being there physically as much as possible because you can’t be there emotionally for your adolescence if you’re not there physically. You can be there physically and be checked out emotionally, but you can’t be there emotionally if you’re not there physically, unfortunately.
DR. AMY: Yeah, you know, we made the decision from the very beginning to sleep with our door open. And I mean, obviously we close it if we’re having sex or something like that, but we sleep with our door open so that our boys always felt welcome. And so my only, you know, request was, can you knock so it doesn’t scare me when you’re standing next to my bed and I’m asleep. Right? And so. they’ll knock. In fact, Evan even says the words “Knock knock” as he knocks. And then I know somebody’s going to be entering my room. But we relish those late-night talks like I’m out of neurotransmitters. I’m exhausted. I’m half asleep. I can only keep one eye open. But if you want to talk to me, then I’m taking it.
TERI: Oh my gosh, Amy. That is so I love that. That’s so true. Cause Amy and I just talked before the show about our, our sons are friends. And so, they, after a meeting, a work thing, anyway, they ended up talking. This is just a couple of nights ago. It was Tuesday. They ended up staying late and talking until super late. Well, I had had a meeting. I got home late. My 14-year-old daughter comes in and she has some things to talk to me about. So she flops down on my bed. She’s talking to me about stuff. And I was so tired. You know, it’s like 10:30 then it’s 10:45, you know, almost 11. And then my son Canyon comes in from having had this fun time with his friends. And he wants to talk! And so, you know, oh my goodness. And I am soaking it up, but I’m like, you know, keep my eyes open, you know. But it was, it’s just like you said, Erica. Just like you said that my son Canyon in particular, if I ask him things. You know, he’s just, he’s very introverted, you know, and so he’ll go, “I don’t know, fine,” but when I had that moment where he came in and I took it, man, hour and a half, no, it wasn’t that long. It was probably an hour. It was so worth it. It was worth the sleep deprivation.
ERICA: So you’d say the children, particularly adolescents, but all children are most open at transitional points. And so those transitional points are waking up, going to sleep, coming home from school, going to school. So if you drive your child to school and you have a 20, so sometimes parents will say to me, “You know, I’m thinking about putting my child in a school 20 minutes away, but I’m like, Oh, it’s so far.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. I’m like, that’s 20 minutes where you’re sitting side by side in a car that you can talk to your child. Don’t turn on the radio and tune them out. You know, zone out. That’s your opportunity to that’s a transitional moment.” So, you know, it’s one of the reasons why if you’re there when they come home that they’re more open because it’s a transitional point between school and home. So, you know, if you work late as a parent and you come home and then, you know, go to sleep at, you know, 10 o’clock, you’re going to miss both the transitional point of them coming home from school and the transitional point of them going to sleep. So, yeah, I mean, again, I always say that, “Pay now, pay later as a parent,” right? So the idea of, them being most vulnerable to talking what we call “pillow talk,” right? We call it pillow talk when they’re toddlers. We call it pillow talk with marital couples, right? That, that time when you’re lying in bed in the dark right before you go to sleep and you’re most vulnerable. And that’s when you talk about what’s bothering you from that day. And that’s when kids are most open.
DR. AMY: Okay, so I want to pivot just a little bit. You talk about limits and flexibility. And so I want to read a quote from your book and then have you speak to it. You say, “Parents confuse structure with strictness and often feel that setting harsh limits is good for their kids. In fact, setting strict and harsh limits is as detrimental to children as not setting limits at all. The effect on children can be the same. A feeling of emotional neglect, perceived rejection by their parents or helplessness.” Wow. Speak to that a little bit.
ERICA: Well, it’s the three little bears analogy, right? So it’s getting it just right. And just right is having structure and setting limits. And having boundaries, but also being able to address flexibly individual situations, you know. The idea that, you know, for instance, you know, I mentioned a case in the book, you know, of a child, of an adolescent who wasn’t supposed to drive the car wasn’t allowed to drive the car but had forgotten his computer at school and knew he had a big test the next day and his parents were out. So he drove the car to school because he didn’t want to fail his test the next day and there was no one to take him to school. And there’s another issue about presence. If you’re gone, he made a decision, that executive decision that failing that test was worse than dealing with the anger of his parents. His parents came home and were enraged and grounded him and didn’t hear his side and didn’t listen to the, you know. There was no flexibility there. So taking situations individually, listening to your child, trying to understand and being flexible. You know, they say the most healthy ego is a flexible one. And so creating rigid boundaries is not good for children and it’s also not good for the relationship with your children. And it’s as bad for children, as I say in the book, as if you don’t create boundaries at all, because it leaves with a feeling of not feeling understood and not feeling loved. And so, the idea is, boundaries, structure that is on you to create, but making sure that they’re flexible enough that you can listen to your children and help them to process individual experiences.
DR. AMY: Yeah. So then speak a little bit about parents who don’t set limits at all. The permissive parent. What are the consequences of that?
ERICA: Well, not feeling loved. I mean, you know, feeling ignored, feeling neglected, feeling not important to your parents. And parents who are very distracted, some of them are working, some of them are not working, some of them are home and checked out, you know, depressed, distracted, disinterested. So, but the idea is that some boundaries actually make children feel secure and it makes children feel as if somebody’s watching, somebody’s paying attention. You know, for toddlers, Margaret Mahler, a very famous psychoanalyst, talked about the idea of emotional checking, emotional refueling, which she called rapprochement, that all toddlers, as they’re exploring the world, look back at their mothers or fathers and make sure that they’re there. And sometimes they’ll go over and get a hug or a snuggle or touch base with them and then go off again and explore. It gives them a sense of security so they can explore in the world. Boundaries do that. And so when there’s either physically no one there or no boundaries there, there’s no feeling of security. So it makes you feel unloved, it makes you feel insecure, it makes you feel not important, it makes you feel ignorable. And so, invisible, essentially. So, yeah, the idea that it’s the balance of things that we’re looking for.
TERI: So speak to now, I’d like you to speak to what are the—we’re going to talk. we’re going to say why we’re asking these here in a second—but now, if you would speak to what are the consequences, what are we going to see in our kids if we’ve been too strict, we’ve had boundaries that are maybe too tight. We’ve been inflexible with consequences and when things happen.
ERICA: A feeling of failure in a child. Expectations that they can’t meet, and so why bother to try? An emotional collapse in that child, essentially. A rebellion, which can lead to emotional collapse. So, you know, the idea of holding someone so they feel comforted and secure with certain boundaries, but not squeezing them too tightly because then all they want to do is wiggle away. And so, you know, I always say to parents, “If you want your Children to rebel, then definitely set really strict limits because you’re definitely going to set it up so they leave you and they push you away.” So, you know, the idea is that adolescents are meant to create space between us, even if we do this right, they’re going to create space. But it’s about intensity and degree. And so if you push too hard with your boundaries, they’re going to push very hard back, and that’s often when they get into a lot of trouble, and they take risks they shouldn’t, that are dangerous risks, and they end up doing things that are, yeah, that are high-risk and dangerous. And self-destructive.
DR. AMY: So Teri and I were on opposite ends of the parenting spectrum when our kids were younger. Actually, Teri has nine kids, so she still has young ones and old ones. But anyway, mine are all over 18 and over now. But I was super permissive, for a number of reasons. One, I’ve always worked and typically getting another degree or two, right? And so just in my busy-ness felt like. I love my kids and so I want them to be happy and if I impose strict limits, then that means I’ll have to suffer myself because if I take their car away I’ll have to drive them. Right? And probably trying to cushion my husband’s strict disciplinarian approach, right, I would kind of pull back and try to balance that with my permissiveness. But Teri, on the other hand, was super controlling. I’ll let you speak to it, Teri. You know, but we both have regrets. We look back and say, “Oh, gosh, we were missing it.”
TERI: Yeah, if I had only known then what I know now. But I was, my firstborn had major medical problems and so, I had to watch over him. He’s had tons of surgeries and had epilepsy and so, I watched over him like a hawk. I really, I sort of kept my oldest three, you know, very, very sheltered because I had to keep my son in this bubble. I had to keep him very sheltered and that was just kind of necessary to take care of him. But then my next two daughters, I think that really suffered from that, from that parental control and sheltering and hovering and yeah, just more strictness. Now, thankfully, I had three kids, had a five-year gap, and then had more.
DR. AMY: Got to do-over!
TERI: Got a do-over! So I’m a very, very different parent now than I was for my first three. But the things you’re talking about, the consequences for being too strict, I definitely see those in my grown, my grown kids now, my adult kids. And I see the hurt that it caused. So listeners, if you’re listening, this isn’t just theory. Amy and I are here to say we’ve lived it and listen to us and listen to Erica and learn from it. And you can try to do something different right now.
ERICA: And just to be clear, I mean, as you tell your story, it’s important that you share your stories with your listeners so it becomes real, you know, not just theoretical. And I think the idea is that when parents are very strict, it usually comes from a good place. Their intentions are to protect their children. But really where it comes from often is hypervigilance. It’s like anxiety, right? So the idea of feeling anxious that something will happen to them, right? So we hold them tighter because we think it will protect them more. And the reality is, I always say the permissiveness and the strictness are like the two blind men touching the elephant, you know, one’s touching the tail, one’s touching the trunk. They don’t realize they’re touching the same darn elephant. Right? And so, yeah, I think that they both end up in the same place, interestingly.
DR. AMY: Yeah. And my middle child didn’t need much, right? Like you could put him in the playroom as a young child with a bucket of Legos and two hours later he’s still playing with that same bucket of Legos. He just didn’t need anything and so I had to be super intentional when he was younger, right, to make time to be with him and check on him when the other two were running around like wild, crazy animals. Of course, they are getting more attention, right? Because there are safety hazards everywhere with them. So what happens then is that pattern continued, right? So as a teenager, he still didn’t seem to need anything. And so then he didn’t get as much attention, right? Because he wasn’t pushing or breaking rules or asking for help. And so I regret, like, I regret that I didn’t make an extra effort to say, “What is it that he might be needing that isn’t overt?”
ERICA: Right. Well, I was going to say boundaries are things that, you know, you have to have boundaries as a parent, but, you know, children, particularly adolescents, do well with incentives. You know, there’s a lot of research to show that they do very well with incentives because the reward centers of their brain are very hypervigilant too, so they do very well with incentives. So, the idea that you reward them for responsible behavior by loosening the boundaries just incrementally a bit, while still keeping boundaries is incentive for them to be responsible. So it’s interesting. So the idea that, you know, it’s sort of responsibility and having faith in their abilities feeds upon itself in a way when it comes to boundaries. So we all need to have boundaries, even if our children are responsible because it keeps them safe. But, you know, the more they show us that we can trust them, the more incrementally we can release some of those boundaries eventually till they’re adults and we no longer have that power over them.
DR. AMY: Yeah. So speaking of the reward system, you talk about there’s some big difference in how the dopamine reward system operates in teens versus adults and how that leads to why our teens would binge on a whole bag of potato chips, for instance, or, you know, get addicted to video games. Talk a little bit about those differences that there’s an explanation for this behavior. That’s neurobiological.
ERICA: Yeah, so the ventral striatum, which is the reward center of the brain is very, very active during adolescence. And that means that it’s more reactive to dopamine and stimulation than in an adult, you know, tenfold more reactive. But, and the reason that it is an issue, is because the prefrontal cortex or the part of the brain that is the emotional regulation part of the brain called the brakes, you know, the ventral striatum is the gas and, and the prefrontal cortex are the brakes. And you’d say, Dan Siegel always refers to it as all gas and no brakes in adolescence, meaning their reward centers are going crazy and they don’t have the brakes to stop it. And so that puts them at high risk for high-risk behaviors and impulsive behaviors. It also makes them susceptible to addiction because again, they have a tenfold reaction to dopamine. So things like video games or alcohol or drugs or gambling or sex, you know, these are all things that give them rushes of dopamine. And so the problem is that if we don’t regulate those activities and have some boundaries around them, then they cannot, there’s no brakes. They can’t control those activities. And then it leads to conditions where they never develop the brakes, right, in the case of addictions. So there is an explanation for it. And there’s also—it’s good reasoning why we need to have boundaries with our kids and why we need to educate them about this part of their development and talk to them about it, but also, you know, be open enough to talk about things like drugs and alcohol and video games, gambling, sex, you know, pornography. These are all things that—food, you know, eating disorders. You have to be open enough to talk about these things so we can educate them, so they can, you know, learn from us and not from sources other than us.
DR. AMY: So I’m hearing you say that we need to be specific about what’s happening in their brain in our conversations with them. “Hey, here is why this is happening to you,” or “Here’s what might happen to you because this is how your brain is functioning right now.”
ERICA: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like an on switch that you can’t turn off. And so, you know, you have to just be careful that you don’t turn it on for long periods of time, because the longer you’re doing an activity, the more you do it, the more susceptible you are to things like obsessional behavior and/or addiction. So yep, that’s it. We have to be open.
DR. AMY: So we’re the external switch for them.
ERICA: We are. We are. We are the external emotional regulator for them. Say they lean into us to be their prefrontal cortex. I wrote a book about babies, and I always say that mothers are the central nervous system for children under the age of one. Literally, they are. Which is why it’s important for mothers to be around in that first year. And I would say that mothers and fathers are the external emotional regulation for adolescents. They still are.
DR. AMY: Yeah. Well, you mentioned earlier through age 25 because their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed before then.
ERICA: The issue is that they’re only home. Generally, most adolescents are only home till 18 or 19. And so that means that it gets harder when they’re away because we’re not physically there. I mean, that’s where the physical proximity is really important. It’s not that you can’t help them from 19 to 25. You can, but it’s harder because you don’t have the physical proximity. So I always say to parents, you know, really take advantage of those 18 years that they’re living at home because once they leave it, it’s not impossible. You know, I always leave hope there. But it’s harder.
TERI: Yeah, well, I’m keeping an eye on the clock, and unfortunately we are getting close to being out of time, but we need to take a break for just a minute, and I am going to read a message from our sponsor, LearningRx.
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DR. AMY: And we’re back talking with Erica Komisar about adolescence. Erica, is there anything that you would like to leave our listeners with today that we didn’t get to say or didn’t get to talk about.
ERICA: I mean, you know, I’ll say what I always say, which is, “More is more.” I say it with little kids and I say it with bigger kids. “More is more.” The more emotionally and physically present you are for your children and adolescents, the more self-aware you are. The more open you are, the more you have faith in your children in the long run, the better off they’ll be. So yeah, more is more.
DR. AMY: I love that. Yeah, I might steal that. Yes, that is good. Well, this has been such a fantastic conversation. We appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to share your wisdom with our listeners. Listeners, if you would like to connect with Erica, we will put all of her links and social media handles and her website in our show notes. Thank you so much for listening today. If you liked our show, we would love it if you would follow us on social media. We are on every channel at The Brainy Moms. You can also leave us a five-star rating and review on Apple Podcasts if you think we’re awesome. And do that right now before you forget. Also if you’d rather watch us, we are on YouTube at the Brainy Moms. That is all the smart stuff we have for you today. So we are going to catch you next time. See ya.