“Most parents don’t know that thier teenagers are undergoing a transformation.”
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore - Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience
Neuroscientific research is pushing child development into the forefront of study and public awareness. However, the significance of teenage neurotypical brain development is often overlooked.
What do we know due to advances in neuroscience?
Adolescence is a key period of neurological development. We are now beginning to understand that a huge amount of change is happening in the brain during teenage years. This post will pay particular attention to the development of the prefrontal cortex during teenage years. When the prefrontal cortex (in the area of your forehead) is fully developed it governs the following cognitive functions: planning ahead, problem solving, emotional regulation, self-control and acting with a long-term goal as motivation for action.
In teenage years the sophisticated executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex is pending… which makes navigating through day to day life as a teenager a challenge. “I just can’t reason with her.” “There is just no getting through to him.”
‘Prefrontal Cortex Pending’
Research tells us that teenagers actually feel emotion much more intensely in their stage of development because they process through the amygdala. This is simply because the Prefrontal cortex can’t quite handle it yet.
Therefore, fear is amplified through the developing teenage body and aggression is much harder for teenagers to reflect on and to understand. Yes adults can still be overcome with anger, fear, anxiety etc but the adult brain structure is actually better equipped to process it. That causes us to question- what about grief? That toing and froing between emotion and rationalisation as we try and process grief. Grieving is a complex process of assimilating the trauma of loss into our cognitive and emotional being. Grief is a struggle for adults, but research suggests our young people are at huge risk of longer term mental health struggles stemming from the loss of a loved one. They just don’t have the capacity to navigate through grief on their own.
While adolescence is a period of vulnerability and parents often feel the frustrations of feeling like they don’t understand their kids anymore. Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore promises it is a time for creativity and opportunity too.
Here at YogaBears we took note of the importance of creative opportunities and the positive impact on development.
We understand that teenagers are in a stage of their lives that is crucial to shaping the adults that they will become. We view every child or young person through the lens of their development, without question. We create moments in our Transform Programme to allow teens to express, to release and to not have to justify or explain themselves. They have the opportunity to just, BE.
How do I view my teenager through the lens of their development too?
William Stixrud saw the relationship between parent and child through the lens of brain development. “My best work was helping parents/ caregivers and their kids to understand each other.”
Below are some tips on how you can help this neurological process run a little smoother:
Support your young person in decision making.
I have worked with teens who have suffered trauma which is known to impact cognitive function and development. Decision making and reasoning support often looks like:
Showing them how to list pros and cons on paper then guiding them through what to actually do with those pros and cons. Maybe choose their biggest pro and the scariest con and allow them to express, without your input and opinions. This really helps you to see the world through their eyes. Suggesting ways to strip the drama away from a situation to see it a little more clearly. I often encourage young people- when ‘it’s all kicking off’ (one of my young people’s catchphrases) to pick someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the situation and to tell me what they would say.
Giving them the technique of how to emotionally step out of the situation is much more lucrative than jumping in with your own opinion they won’t always understand how you arrived at your opinion.
Choosing options at school and college is often a cause for anxiety and stress. I would provide reassurance with some ooomf, “You’ll be fine” - just won’t cut it.
Acknowledge that they might feel like the weight of their future is on their shoulders. Explore worst-case scenarios and provide the reassurance the worst case often isn’t as bad as they built up in their heads. But again, give them that space to express themselves, allow them to teach you how they see the world. As adults we have perspective, lived experience and the brain capacity to be able to apply our prior experiences to our decisions. This is possibly one of the biggest decisions they’ve made in their lives.
Reward good behaviour
Studies on the brain show us that punishing unwanted behaviour has less of an impact than rewarding wanted behaviours. As adults we quickly forget that teenagers love to be praised. I’ve found teenagers struggle to see a multi process function through while maintaining the same level of motivation that they started with. I use the following phrases to praise effort/behaviour with less focus on the overall outcome.
I like the way you…. persevered with that. I can see the effort you put into ……
Just acknowledging and noticing small efforts will encourage bigger ones.
Resist the BUT that can come later. That BUT is a blog post in itself.
Often as adults we can’t always find the logic in the responses and behaviours of our teenagers. Well teens often feel the same! They don’t always understand why they did it either.
Try to explain your expectations in a non-judgmental way. Not what you expect, but why you expect it…. We take initiative for granted but that is also yet to come for teenagers.
Maybe you might want to share the logic behind a new approach if you feel one of these tips may be useful.
Context (Technique to help adults emotionally)
In my work I am fully able to see the child/young person and their behaviours as 2 separate things. I don’t take behaviour to heart. But with my 2 foster brothers, I take my work hat off and find this grey area of work and home, admittedly a little more difficult. So I use a little technique where I take a behaviour and act like inspector cluedo to try and place it in its context.
An example: One of my foster brothers is pre-teen and absolutely hates school. Mornings getting him ready for school are a nightmare. I am a therapist, studying for a masters in early childhood interdisciplinary, I have qualifications in children’s anger management, therapeutic parenting….. Monday mornings are still a nightmare! But I take a breath and put his behaviours into context.
I know that school is often a place where the empathy, sensitivity and tolerance that a teenage brain (or in my case pre-teenage brain) craves, can’t always be sourced. So as hard as the mornings are, I know whatever emotional state he is leaving the house in, he might not be getting the response that he needs to emotionally regulate when he gets to school. So the last thing he needs is, for me to add to his anger and anxiety fuelled morning. Sometimes we laugh and try to think “if Monday morning was a thing what would it be…” we often arrive at dog poo.
Sometimes I do/say very little but just allow him to be. I find in these circumstances, much of his frustration isn’t directed at me but he feels safe to feel it and not have to carry it with him through the day. Context doesn’t turn a parent or caregiver into a pushover, it just helps us to take a breather and to be a more compassionate and empathetic version of ourselves.
If you have any requests for future blog post/ feedback or would like more information please feel free to contact us at Supporting Young Minds.