Understanding the Teenage Brain

Why do our teenagers get such a bad wrap? Moody, difficult, disorganised, are all words that are associated with teenagers. Some parents dread the teen years or are already finding them extremely challenging. Yet teenagers can be so bright, sensitive, caring, fun and curious about life, so why is there such discord at this stage of their lives?

One common misconception of teenager’s behaviour is the influx of hormones at puberty but as Frances Jensen explains in her book ‘The Teenage Brain’ this has more to do with the way their brains are reacting to the hormones, than the hormones in isolation. The brain’s frontal lobe, placed right behind the forehead is only fully developed in your early twenties and as this the place where actions are weighed, situations judged and decisions are made, it goes along way to understand the seemly foolish and risky decisions that we made ourselves and that teenagers can be prone to making.

The teenage brain is busy building new connections, especially neurotransmitters, the brain’s messengers and so this time of intense growth and flexibly not only gives our teenagers a window of opportunity for incredible accomplishments but also increases the liability for them to be adversely affected by stress, drugs, alcohol and environment changes. The teenage brain is just not yet hard-wired to make adults decisions.

So how can we support our teenagers through this time as they are developing a perception of themselves, questioning how others see them and forming their identity within their friendship groups. Just as we turn to certain close friends in times of stress, knowing that they will be non-judgemental and supportive, so teenager’s relationships and friendships are very important. However via social media, their friends and any games they might be playing can have access to them pretty much 24/7 via notifications, so try to encourage children to switch off some of these notifications so that they can be in control of how and when they are contactable. Study apps such as ‘Forest’ can help to manage their devices in order to get their work completed whilst uninterrupted.

We should also be proud of our teenagers and support their independence, they’re coming out from under our wings to enable them to transfer into young adulthood. Teens are making important decisions about their school subject choices and further study options and as well as forming their attitudes to sex, drugs and alcohol, so crucially this is not a time to switch off. As independent as they may seem, we still need to be on hand to try to guide and advise them, explaining potential hazards and encouraging healthy attitudes, just be prepared to repeat any advice over and over again.

Our current educational value system can have a negative affect on children. Although we know now that emotional intelligence is just as important as academic intelligence, this hasn’t always been recognised and our tradition system of grading subjects may make children feel that they aren’t doing well, if they not getting the grades that are said to be acceptable or comparable to their peers. As Shefali Tisbaary says in her book ‘The Conscious Parent’, knowing how her daughter was doing as a person at home, meant that she didn’t need to concern herself with how she was doing at maths, reading and writing at school. Her focus was on how good a student her daughter was at life, rather than how good a student she was at school.

After many years of early morning wake ups and children’s TV shows on repeat, costly babysitting has come to an end and it is time to enjoy our teenagers. Arm them with the science to explain what is going on in their brains and by actually listening to them we can maintain a connection with them, whilst also setting some fair boundaries. As my great friend and author Andy Baggott explained to me, parenting shouldn’t be a dictatorship, we can’t presume to have the authority as adults, as demanding behaviour from children with threats, will only illicit submission or deceit, neither traits we would want to promote.

Teenagers need to be respected as well as cared for, so any frustration or anger we might feel with their behaviour is an opportunity to look at ourselves and see why these feelings are coming up. I’ve just started a new podcast Healthy Happy Home, and all the usual platforms, and when we talked on our second episode about “conscious parenting” I thought that there was no choice but to be conscious whilst parenting, unconsciously parenting would surely mean that you are either asleep or hung-over, (both of which I have certainly done many times… ) so really what other option is there than to be conscious? But I understand now that what it really means is being conscious of our own reactions and actions. This teenage stage of parenting is a last chance saloon for us to really learn from our children before they become adults, a final window to take a look at our value systems and see where we have triggers hiding that we can clear out. Personally I take quite a bit of advice from my children these days and why not. I figure I might as well get something back after all those years of childcare and anyway, as experimental as they may be at this age, their brains are certainly fresher than mine.