Researchers tell us the adolescent brain is similar in many ways to a toddler’s. If you like to quantify things, you’ll love it. The research is often mathematical: the two-year-old brain and the teenaged brain are strikingly parallel. I really do hope you will read about it, but the real evidence lies before our eyes in those unholy disasters we call the bedrooms of our teenagers.
Think about it: the two-year-old acts impulsively. She needs to be reminded that the stove is hot, to stay out of the street, to keep peas out of her nose. The two-year-old says, “no” as a matter of habit. He recklessly challenges limits, wants to “do it myself” and requires frequent naps to keep from imploding. I don’t know about you, but my husband and I could safely say the same about our teenagers.
Thinking about our adolescent children as overgrown, smelly versions of their toddler selves has helped our family. A wise and irreverent therapist has guided every single one of us—and all of us together—out of the wilderness of adolescent rebellion and back onto a path that allows our family to grow and love and respect one another along the way. One of the most valuable tools she gave us was the reminder that teenagers are a lot like two-year-olds. When we remember, my husband I laugh more. When he recalls that toddlers can’t be expected to focus on an entire round of golf, he finds humor in the fifteen-year-old collapsing into giggles on the eleventh tee box. (It is all very confusing, remember, because adolescence is indeed a regression. This same child played golf with the attention-span of a PGA veteran when he was seven years old. My husband had to adjust his expectations, which can confound the best of us.)
When we recall that toddlers forget to flush the toilet and brush their teeth and pick up their toys, these teenagers make more sense. Surely you would not entrust a two-year-old with remembering her backpack, or putting his athletic cup somewhere besides the kitchen counter, or to deliver an important message to his teacher. So when the teenager loses yet another cell phone or fails to turn in yet another (completed) homework assignment, it is helpful and amusing to remember the toddler brain at work. We don’t give up on the idea of a two-year-old maturing. We know she will someday become more responsible and independent. We keep pinning notes to backs and delivering forgotten lunches, knowing it’s just a phase. It’s the same deal with teenagers, only they’re way less cute and their meltdowns are kind of scary.
Even the kids themselves—in my own family and in the classroom—do well to remember they are a lot like toddlers. My husband has, to great effect, taken a child by the hand and said, “Hey, Little Buddy, let me show you again how we throw our clothes into the hamper and not on the floor. I know you can’t remember because you’re really only two, so let’s just have another lesson.” This approach inevitably cracks up the teenager in question and has netted more consistent results than my knee-jerk approach (whirling about like a Tasmanian devil, leaving everyone in my path frightened and exhausted). A sense of humor and shared laughter with our teens are healthy antidotes to their attitudes. My husband’s instinctive ability to connect in this way with our children is one of his best qualities, and acknowledging their toddler tendencies helps every time.
Yes, teenagers are like overgrown toddlers, and we do best to raise them with as much love and vigilance as we do our two-year-olds.