I just googled the search term ‘why parents can’t understand teenagers’. The results were interesting. First of all, Google wanted to make sure I didn’t mean ‘why parents don’t understand teenagers’. I didn’t. But searching for the reason why parents can’t understand teenagers, I only came across reasons why they don’t. And in the top ten of search results, there were also some sites with complaint from teens that their parents ‘just didn’t understand them’.
But you see, it’s not just a matter of not wanting to understand, or not trying hard enough. It’s also a matter of not being able to. And that has to do with our emotional memory.
Did you know there was such a thing as an emotional memory? It’s a memory of the feelings and emotions you were experiencing at a certain moment, the thoughts you had at a particular time. As it turns out, our emotional memory is usually limited.
Just see for yourself: take an old photo album of yourself, for instance with pictures of you as a teenager. You will probably remember the event at which the photo was taken and some of the facts, but can you recall how you felt at that time, what emotions you experienced? You’ll find that you probably can’t, at least not from too long ago.
It’s one of the reasons why parents can’t understand their teenagers, because they honestly can’t remember what it feels like to be a teenager. They have forgotten their own emotions, thoughts, and feelings from that period, they can’t remember their self from that time.
In this really interesting book called Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential, Richard Restak M.D. discusses how you can unleash your brain’s potential. He’s a renowned neuropsychiatrist and has written 18 books till date on the brain. He’s the one who introduced me to the concept of emotional memory. Here’s what he writes about emotional memory and intergenerational conflicts:
“For instance, although all of us have gone through the turmoil of adolescence, very few of us can reexperience the accompanying emotions that we felt at the time. This failure is at least partly responsible for intergenerational conflicts. As adult men or women, we can no longer imaginatively reexperience via emotional memory how we felt decades earlier. We lack the ability to ‘enter into’ the dreams, insecurities, and desires experienced by a teenage son or daughter.”
I’m a parent, but my son is only three, so I have no firsthand experience of parenting a teen. But I have felt sometimes that I had less trouble understanding teens than their parents did. And this book made me think why that is.
As youth workers, we are constantly around teens and students. When I read about this concept of emotional memory and how that affects parent’s ability to truly understand their teen, I was wondering if it’s the same for youth leaders. Dr. Restak shows in his book that your brain can be trained, including your emotional memory.
I know I think a lot about my ‘teenage years’ and try and recall situations and events constantly, for instance as illustrations in sermons (I had great success once with showing a picture of me and my first boyfriend…). Are we as youth leaders unconsciously training our emotional memory, which helps us to understand teens better than their parents can? It’s an interesting thought, no?
Either way, grasping the concept of emotional memory may help us to accept that parents aren’t always able to truly understand what their teens are going through, simply because they have forgotten what being a teen is like. It seems that the eternal ‘you-just-don’t-understand-me’ complaint from teens has some merit after all…
What do you think of this theory? Have you ever experienced not being able to understand teens? Do you agree with my thought that youth leaders might have an easier time because we train our brains to remember? I’d love to hear your thoughts!