Understanding The Teenage Brain

Understanding The Teenage Brain

Being a parent is not always easy, especially during lockdown. For those of you with teenagers, here is a short talk on how changes in the teenage brain can affect their behaviour. Understanding these changes can help us with parenting and improve relationships with our children.

Video Transcription

We are all individuals and so are our children so some will sail through these years while others will find it difficult. Like a lot of things to do with parenting what might work with one child may not work with another.

But the purpose of this talk is to provide some understanding about what’s going on in the brain of a teenager so that we can understand some of their behaviour and then this will help us with the way that we parent.

It can be confusing to parents that the child that used to say you were the best mummy in the world doesn’t even want to walk on the same side of the road as you and that everything you say seems to be embarrassing.

So why is that? Is it hormones or just the need to break free from parents and become independent? Well both these things are true but also new research shows that something special is going on in the teenager’s brain. These changes in the brain start at around the age of 11 and don’t end until about the age of 24.

The Brain

Let’s start with some information about the brain. It’s incredible – it can fit in the palm of your hand and there are more cells in the brain than there are people on the planet.

The grey matter in the wrinkly outer part of the brain is mostly made up of neurons. These are nerve cells connected to each other by fibres – axons and dendrites – that carry messages from one cell to another. These axons are mostly in the white matter part of the brain which is underneath the grey matter.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the brain but advances in technology particularly through scanning have helped us to discover an awful lot more. We used to think the brain stopped developing at the end of childhood but we’ve learned that there’s major changes in the teenage years too.

Apart from the first 3 years of life the brain is more plastic in the teenage years than at any other stage in human development. So this gives chance for repair and rewiring.

You can see on the slide 3 key areas of the brain that we are talking about today – the prefrontal cortex responsible for thinking, planning, problem solving, self control and awareness, the amygdala concerned with emotion, sensation, arousal and response to fear. Thirdly the hippocampus which has to do with memory.

The two sites with the greatest change during this time are the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. More about this in a minute.

Let’s have a look at pruning of the nerve cells of the brain – the neurons. When a baby is born it will have almost of all its neurons but very few dendrites, the connectors between the cells, but these develop fast as the baby grows. These connections grow when the baby does something so for example when it focusses on an object the connections multiply and then strengthen in the parts of the brain which deal with seeing, the parts that deal with understanding what we see and the parts that deal with remembering what we see. So it’s not the number of neurons that we have that’s important but the number of and strength of the connections. The more times we do something and repeat it the more the connections increase and strengthen.

So when we learn to drive a car at the beginning it can feel really difficult and hard to remember what to do but eventually it becomes automatic and that’s to do with connections in our brain.

Changes in the teenage brain start at around 11 years of age when there’s a large increase in the number of these connections. Then at around 16 or 17 the connections not wanted are cut back, a bit like pruning a tree, leaving fewer branches but these are thicker and stronger. The bridge between the two halves of the brain matures which helps with the ability to think abstractly and to make connections between different ideas.

This pruning starts at the back of the brain and works forward. The last bit to be reached is the prefrontal cortex which as you will remember is the bit responsible for planning and reasoning. The hormone balance is also altered at this time – more about that later.

Interestingly some other mammals have a period of adolescence too including monkeys, rats and mice but they get through it quicker than humans. The female rhesus monkey goes from puberty to adulthood between 18m and 2 years old and displays similar characteristics to our teenagers including sleep patterns, risk taking and spending large amounts of time hanging about with other teenage monkeys. 

It can be hard parenting teenagers and parents might wonder if they have any role to play in this time. It’s important to remember that it is just a stage and will end. So using the acronym STAGE here are some helpful thoughts on surviving those years. S standing for significance, T for Two Way Communication, A is for Authority, G is for Generation Gap and E for Emotion.

Let’s start with S for Significance

Adults matter although they often think they don’t. It might not feel like this especially if our teenager rejects what we’re saying. However we’re just as important as we were when they were little, it’s just a different role.

It’s all part of developing to try to be independent of adults. Young people often don’t know what they want to be or who they are, what they do know is that they want to be different from their parents.

I can remember as a teenager thinking that when I was grown up I’d act very differently to my parents, now I’m a parent myself my views have changed.

It can be challenging and feel hurtful when a child doesn’t think you know anything or are out of date. After all when they were little they thought you knew everything.

Teenagers will reject your family values saying they are their own person but it is often only temporary. It like breaking the apron strings, it’s natural and healthy but it can be hard for parents.

Teenagers are trainee adults even though they may look like adults and as parents it can be helpful to see our role as training them for their future as an adult by offering the right levels of safety and protection while also allowing them some independence and autonomy. This will depend on the actual risk and capability of your child – you know your own child and it will of course change as they grow older.

We are role models though it might not feel like that sometime but what we do and our attitudes do have an influence. Our values, how we look after our own health, how we treat others and how we work together as parents whether we’re parenting together or apart will have an influence. Teenagers are particularly good at spotting a lack of authenticity so it’s no good complaining about them looking at their phones during dinner if we’re not prepared to put our own phones away too!

T is for Two Way Communication

As the brain is changing teenagers are developing their communication skills even though sometimes it can feel like all we hear is grunting! A typical 14 year old has only about 75% of the words of adults, they can often feel self conscious and inarticulate and as they need privacy it can lead to us seeing them as uncommunicative. However they often are articulate and expressive but they haven’t developed the capacity for small talk.

They might also misinterpret the questions we ask them where we are just trying to show an interest such as “how are you getting on with the homework?” as being interrogated and told what to do.

This is another area in which we can play a part as a role model communicating in a collected way to calm things down when they’re feeling overwhelmed with their emotions and are struggling to manage them.

We might need sometimes to ask for a break when things get heated and then suggest we come back together to talk when we’ve both calmed down.

I found that talking that isn’t eyeball to eyeball is less threatening to teenagers and I’ve had good conversations in the car or washing up- anything that’s mainly side by side.

It’s usually also best when it’s at their time when they want to speak and often seems to be late at night when we are tired but it is worth picking up on those times.

A stands for Authority in Times of Change

As I mentioned before we’re training our teenagers to be an adult gradually equipping them with more independence and autonomy according to their age and also their abilities. The old saying about giving them strong roots but also wings to fly really does apply. So we need to be warm and supportive but also to have clear boundaries.

 I’ve found that dos work better than don’ts so being very clear about what behaviour you do want rather than saying what you don’t want. So instead of “don’t drop all your clothes on the floor”, 

“ pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the washing basket.”

It is difficult to make teens do things without their buy in so do remember to give lots of praise. It can sometimes mean picking our battles and not picking on everything we feel our teenagers are doing wrong. Some things like messy bedrooms I think are just not worth the battle. It does seem to be a normal age and stage for most teenagers and it does end so unless you see cockroaches leaving their bedrooms with suitcases I really wouldn’t worry about a messy bedroom.

G is for Generation Gap

No matter how young we think we are our teenagers won’t see us that way and there is a generation gap. There is a difference from when we were teenagers and the world they are in now.

Being judged is a key issue for young people. They do often get a bad press – if you look in the papers it is usually about hoodies, drugs and knife crimes yet the good things that young people do get overlooked. Teenagers can be idealistic, energetic, enthusiastic – to name but a few things.

No matter how young we think we are we have had a very different experience. An example of this is the social world today which really can’t be compared to 30/40 years ago. The internet, social media, life lived online and it’s ever changing from week to week. Another difference is that a significant number of children and young people stay in some sort of education or training until at least the age of 18 and more go to Uni than used to. Being in education is different than being in work.

It can be helpful for us to think back to when we were teenagers so that we can try and walk in their shoes a little. Teenagers often cry “you don’t understand “ but we can ask them “help me to understand.”

Try and encourage them to tell you what they and their friends are doing. If you’re not so sure about it – ask them if they think it’s ok. Ask them what the pressures are without being judgmental. It can be easy to say sometimes “well you think that’s hard just wait until you’re grown up” but that’s not helpful!

Adults need to be tellable when things go wrong.

E is for Emotion

Ask any parent what teenagers are like and they will often say they are moody. I can remember as a teenager swinging through various emotions in just one day.

The reason for this is the amygdala, the area that manages emotions, sensations and arousal in the brain. This undergoes major changes in this time and takes time to settle down.

The amygdala itself is very affected by hormone balance which means that young people can experience great mood swings from one mood to another and from one hour to another with a kind of flip flop of emotions going on. Combine that with the social and emotional changes from a child to and adult and life can feel confusing and pressured and anxious and worrying. Adults obviously feel anxiety and worry too but we do have the maturity to manage our emotions.

Of course it can be very stressful for parents too. I remember always loving my teenagers but not always liking them. We may feel disappointed and sad that we don’t have the same close relationships we once had.

Teenagers do need love as much as young children do but may need it expressed in other ways. Sometimes we may need to just stand back and not take over – to just be there. Sometimes we may need to take a deep breath and not react, just walk away. Pick those battles.

We can also feel alone during this time but talking to other parents can help. We often don’t get the opportunity to do it like we used to when our children were little and we met other parents at the school gate. We may feel like we are the only ones who only recognise our teenagers for 50% of the time and are struggling with that. Someone described it that it’s as if our teenagers go into space for a few years but they do come back to land eventually. So try to keep a sense of humour and remember it will pass..  After all we were all teenagers once and we turned out ok.

So let’s talk about hormones. There are many hormones that influence brain function and therefore behaviour and during adolescence there is a major alteration in the hormone balacnce.

A few examples of these hormones are, cortisol the anxiety hormone, the sex hormones, serotonin the feel good hormone, dopamine the reward hormone and melatonin the hormone that affects sleep.

There is a big change in hormone balance during adolescence and these vary during the space of 24 hours much more than they do for adults which explains why mood and feelings can be so volatile.

Most young people agree that life for them feels more stressful, they feel more moody and its more difficult to get to sleep and that leads us on to the topic of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep.

You might ask why does my teenager stay up late and I can’t get him up in the morning and maybe on Saturday he sleeps in until lunchtime and even then I have to wake them up. There is actually a biological reason for that.

The hormone melatonin prepares our brain to be sleepy and around puberty  it’s produced much later in the day than it is when we’re children. So teenagers often don’t feel ready for bed and often don’t feel ready till 2 hours later than adults and then of course they’re not ready to get up in the morning .

Sleep is really important for learning and memory and teenagers actually need 8 to 10 hours and a lot aren’t getting that. So as adults we can help to encourage them to have good sleep. Ideas for this would be a regular sleep routine, avoid excitement like computer games before going to sleep. It’s important to switch off the phone and not to go online because the blue light from electronic devices can hinder rest, ideally put phones outside the bedroom door. We might need to lead the way in that and have that as a family role- another of the ways we can be role models and to help our young people with focusing on relaxing before bedtime, things like quiet music, reading, lavender, helps the brain to switch off.

Risk Taking

Some but not all teenagers will take risks or do things without thinking. This is because the planning, thinking, problem solving part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is the area that develops last. Taking risks is not all bad – sometimes we need to take risks to grow. The hormone balance has a part to play in this particularly dopamine, also of course friends and the social circumstances our children are living in has a really big influence. As parents we can support our young people to take healthy risks such as through sports or travelling and to help them with managing risk too, help them to plan ahead in order to mitigate risk.

We could sit down with them to learn good decision making skills or role model this, for example, just talking through the pros and cons of situations before making a decision.

We are coming to an end now, the last few slides summarise the changes occur as a result of changes in the brain. 

There are good changes:

Maturity in the brain leads to abstract thinking, better memory, greater vocabulary, scientific reasoning and better communication skills.

The two halves of the brain connect better and teenagers are able to use more parts of the brain.

The not so good are:

The brain is in a state of upheaval which can cause confusion and uncertainty and our teenager finds it difficult to know what to think or to make decisions. The upset in the hormone balance can cause mood swings, irritability, wanting to have fun and being keen to take risks that aren’t always healthy.

So as adults what can we do? The environment does matter and we are a key element in that. There are some roles for us – to try and show understanding and I mentioned before it’s important to be tellable when things go wrong.

Try and help our young people to manage the hormone balance. We talked for example about encouraging our young people to get enough sleep. On the next slide we’ll talk about encouraging young people to beef up the prefrontal cortex. Try and help them with good routines.

What can young people do? There are things young people can do to “beef up” the pre frontal cortex in other words to get it moving faster. Being proactive in the use of media. Think about what is the media actually saying, is it true? Is it fake news? To be curious. Practice decision making skills. It’s really important to be active. It gets more oxygen to the brain and is good for anxiety and worry.