What’s Going On Inside Your Teen’s Brain?
Do you have a teen? If so, and they’ve driven you up the wall and back again – perhaps it’s time to take a closer look inside your teen’s brain…
If you ask parents of teens to describe the teenage years, words like crazy, confusing, frustrating, scary, and out of control often crop up. Vibrant one moment and sullenly moody the next, engaging in risky and impulsive behaviours one day and sharing profound reflections on life the next, teenagers throughout the ages have confounded their parents.
With five pre-teens in our home, and our eldest right on the cusp of entering the teen tunnel, Julie and I have been reading up on what to expect when you’re expecting a teen!
Offering a healthy dose of perspective along the parenting way, Dr. J. Clark has written a book, reassuringly titled, “Your Teenager Is Not Crazy.” In it, she provides incredible insights into what’s actually going on inside your teen’s brain. Here are some of my big take homes from the book:
- Your teen’s not crazy, just under construction
- Your teen’s brain is super impressionable
- They’re hardwired to feel misunderstood
- They need you around (now more than ever)
- Don’t minimise, empathise
- It’s OK to grieve
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail…
1. Your teen’s not crazy, just under construction
While our brains reach over 90% of their structural size by the time we’re 6 years old, we now know that the brain undergoes dramatic and essential internal development in the years leading up to and throughout adolescence. Neurobiological studies have now shown that every adolescent brain goes under significant construction between the ages of approximately 12 and 24.
Between the ages of 11 (for girls) and around 12 (for boys), the brain shifts course and begins to prune neurons, cutting back unused brain pathways. Those neural highways that remain are strengthened in a process called myelination, during which a protective layering insulates neurons, improving the speed and efficiency of cognitive processing. All of this (invisible) hard work is certain to play out in mood swings and tiredness – another big reason why getting your teen into healthy sleep patterns is so important.
2. Your teen’s brain is super impressionable
During this ‘under construction’ phase that every teen brain must go through, the brain operates on a “use it or lose it” principle. In the authors words,
“If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games… those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.”
What this means is that the habits and choices we make during our adolescent years has a disproportionately significant effect on the rest of our lives. Our brains are literally in the process of being hardwired!
3. They’re hardwired to feel misunderstood
Speaking of hardwiring, your teen is hardwired to feel misunderstood. It’s science! At some point (and, for some, at every point) teens feel misunderstood. The simple truth is that due to the rapid ways their brains are changing, they are bound to be misunderstood – even by themselves at times.
A major reason teens report feeling misunderstood is because parents expect them to stay the same, yet adolescence is all about change. But if you as a parent can grasp that a remarkable and massive remodeling is going on in your teen’s brain, you can hopefully develop greater compassion for the days of experimentation, exhilaration, and downright confusion. Especially when you consider how this remodeling happens back to front…
You see, one of the first areas of the teenage brain to be pruned and reconfigured is the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system. While this system is highly aroused early in adolescence, the brain’s control center (specifically the prefrontal cortex) matures last. This prefrontal cortex is the part we all wish our teens got remodelled first… its roles include forethought and planning, good judgment, decision-making, and self-regulation. Alas, for reasons God alone knows, our teens’ emotional centers are firing on all cylindres long before their executive functioning has caught up.
The most common result: bucketloads of emotions and a short supply of rationality. Which is bound to end in a bewildered parent and a teen who (now and then at least) feels super misunderstood.
4. They need you around (now more than ever)
Like any big remodeling project, it’s really good to have some calm, experienced adults on-site. And that’s the strange paradox of this season in which your teen’s brain is being overhauled: while it’s true that your teen needs to grow independent and will probably push you away at times, there’s another part of them that really needs you to stick around and be near for when a newly revamped part of them comes crashing down. Part of being on-site means being consistent and courageously present. Don’t disconnect and then launch in demanding change.
Be observant while on-site too… this means paying attention to your teen’s words, thoughts, interests, and fears. Try to do more listening than lecturing. In the words of the author: “Do everything you can to keep from inserting your ideas, opinions, or suggestions. Trust that there will be time for that later. If communication is going well, ask follow-up questions to draw out your teen’s thoughts and feelings. Finally, show respect for what your teen says by reiterating it, confirming you’ve heard and understand. Keep the conversation short and to the point; this is an especially effective communication tool with teens.”
5. Don’t minimise, empathise.
If your daughter is crying in the bathroom because she’s got a big zit on her forehead, please rethink the dismissive, “Get over it, everyone gets zits.” Your teen’s big issues are genuinely very big to them. So try to respond with affirming statements like, “I can see why that would be hard for you.”
The fastest way to grow the understanding gap is to try to convince teenagers that feelings don’t matter, that they should get past something, or that you’ve got the perfect way to fix the situation. Ironically, is as we parents see their pain and don’t try to solve it, that they feel really seen and understood.
6. It’s OK to grieve.
As our children became teenagers, most of us parents feel under-prepared to deal with their own conflicting emotions. We knew they’d have mood swings, but we didn’t know we’d face such a sense of loss! Watching our kids transform during their adolescent years might be wonderful at times, but we may also miss the snuggly, small kids they were seemingly moments ago. And that’s okay, in fact, it’s totally normal. Grieving the loss of your little boy or girl is an essential part of parenting adolescents.
If this rings true for you, the author suggests taking some time to talk with a spouse or friend, or even to journal on your own. Perhaps you need to acknowledge, grieve and then let go of the loss of closeness, or the loss of feeling needed. As our teens grow, there’s a natural loss of control over them and a loss of ease and simpler days. Maybe you feel like you’ve lost some of your confidence, and find yourself asking, “Why did he do that?” or “What is she becoming? Have I done something wrong?” You may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s okay too!
That’s it folks. All the best to all of us in the teen trenches!
Thanks to this book for all the great insights.
By the way, this article has been adapted from a 2-part series my wife wrote for mumbox.
Also published on Medium.