The Trouble With Teenagers
Why is there a sullen, stand-offish, lanky human grunting in response to me where my happy, loving, cute and communicative child once stood?
As a Mum to a teenager, I am sure I am experiencing the same challenges as many of you are facing too.
You are not alone in feeling this but there is a scientific reason why teenagers go through this stage.
During childhood, the brain grows at an astonishing rate. As children learn more and more, connections are made and expanded within the brain on an almost daily basis. The whole purpose of adolescence is to become an independent adult so during this time the teenage brain does some amazing things. It starts to cut back and cut off some of these connections in preparation for adulthood, however, other key areas of the brain, that are crucial in making a decent adult, are still not fully developed.
One of these under-developed brain parts is the frontal lobe; responsible for rational thought, understanding and reacting to the feelings of others, expressive language, voluntary movement, reward-seeking behaviour etc. The frontal lobe of a teen has not yet formed all connections within the brain so what we are left with is a human lacking in empathy, lacking in expressive language (hence the repeated grunts of “it’s not fair”), not yet capable of making rational decisions or planning ahead and with a huge drive for pleasure-seeking. The dopamine -sensitive neurons are located in the under-developed frontal lobe along with rational thought – not a great combination! This combination is what leads teens to seek gratification and take risks without considering what the consequences of this may be.
The world of a teenager becomes very small, normally with them at the very centre of it. Due to under-developed and un-connected brain functions the good communication skills that you thought you had taught them go out the window. As I said before the frontal lobe is responsible for understanding and reacting to the feelings of others so they lack empathy and therefore, don’t realise how hurtful some of their actions and comments are to their parents. Their expressive language is also being hampered by this under-developed brain; so the huffs, puffs, grunts, eye-rolls and repeated: “it’s not fair. Everyone else is allowed to…” (or words to that effect) take over from where actual words once were. In my opinion, this is all very expressive language in itself, just not very “acceptable’ expressive language when you are an adult. Rational decisions and planning ahead are also affected so they cannot see the need for some of the things we ask of them when the need seems so obvious to us adults.
Now we understand their lack of communication better it is obvious that we need to find new ways of communicating and connecting with them. If we try to get them to do something by being demanding we will get no-where. If we challenge their unwanted behaviour by being confrontational and domineering things often become worse. Instead try to explain why you feel the way you do, or why you are asking them to do something, why something needs doing right away rather than after the game they are playing. Show them respect and by doing so you are gaining their respect.
You are still the parent and “in charge” but it’s important to show our children that just because they are bolshy, grunty teens, whose behaviour we often don’t agree with, they are still important to us and very much loved. Boundaries need to be clear and consistent and consequences need to suit the unwanted behaviour. We need to show them that we can accept their behaviours because we understand where they are coming from, even if we do not like or agree with this behaviour.
It is during sleep that all the brain changes, that happen to a teenager, take place. This is very demanding on the body, so teenagers really need between 8-10 hours of sleep each night in order for the brain to rewire itself and store newly learnt information.
During this time there is also a fairly dramatic shift in their body clock (circadian rhythm) causing a few hours difference. This is why teenagers want to go to bed later and wake up much later. Sending a teenager to bed at 10pm is similar to sending an adult to bed at 7pm and the same is true of waking up the next day. This is why there has been talk for many years about how teenagers should start the school day later. Starting school at 8.30am is like us starting work at 5.30am five days per week. 🥱
Good sleep strategies:
– ⏰ In order to re-set the circadian rhythm humans need to go to bed and get up at the same set times every day, including weekends and holidays for the body clock to re-adjust.
– No screens for an hour before bed because the blue light keeps the brain awake.
– Keep bedrooms cooler than the rest of the house as the body temperature needs to drop in order for the body to realise it’s time to sleep.
Dopamine stores are lower in a teen than in a child or adult, however, the amount of dopamine released in one go is higher in teens. This means that they get bored more quickly than a child or adult and the excitement needs to be bigger, but the rush they get from something exciting, is far greater hence the need to try increasingly risky things. Teens have always been prone to take risks, however, today’s teens have greater access to risk via social media and the internet than ever before. Drugs are also easier to get hold of sadly. Teenagers are very open to suggestion but not developed enough to weigh up the thrill of risk with the possible outcome.
In order to meet the same needs as these risky behaviours, it’s our job as parents to find less risky but equally exciting activities for our teens to do. Extreme sports are a good example of this. They give the risk in a more controlled way and therefore send out a hefty dose of dopamine to the teenager.
Teenagers need clear boundaries and consequences. It makes them feel secure to know they are there even though they may be trying to push or break these boundaries down on a regular basis.
– Create a few simple and clearly defined rules and consequences for breaking those rules.
– Be consistent. Children and teens like to know what to expect and behave better as a result. The threat of a consequence will become meaningless if the consequence isn’t followed through.
– Don’t make the consequences too extreme. Try to use a natural consequence whenever possible; this is a consequence that fits the rule broken. For example, taking a phone away for a day or 2 if screen time is broken, grounding them if the teenager comes home late, ban TV or gaming for a bit if they are not sticking to screen-time rules etc.
– Don’t give back privileges before the agreed time. If you say you are taking the phone away for 24 hours stick to it. Equally, don’t take things away for too long otherwise it becomes no longer punishment and you lose your leverage in not being able to take that thing away again.
– Give a warning and be flexible. Even as adults we don’t like having to suddenly drop what we are doing to do something we are being told/asked to. So instead of saying “the dishwasher needs emptying now”, try giving a timeframe “the dishwasher needs emptying in the next 30 minutes please”.
– Know when it’s better to ignore bad behaviour. Often children can use bad behaviour as a form of getting attention or a reaction. When you know this is the reason, instead, wait for the positive behaviour and reward that instead of punishing. Even negative attention is better than no attention to a child/teenager.
– Choose your battles. You don’t have the energy to fight for everything. Know what is important and make sure your child knows what is important too. Remember, what the teenage brain is doing and be reasonable.
– Finally, and most importantly, remember you are your child’s role model. If you are shouting and losing control that is showing them that is acceptable behaviour. Never hit, shame or humiliate.
The emotional part of the brain is the dominant part during this re-wiring and as the emotional brain isn’t yet connected to the logical frontal lobe our teen’s emotions become rather volatile. The mental health of teens and children has never been more tested. Just when our teens are ready to start exploring the world without our parents, Covid hits bringing school closures, lack of social contact and increased screen-time. With the increase in screen-time comes the intense pressure of social media creating anxiety, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, self-harm, anger etc.
Staying connected to our teens means that we are likely to notice when their mental health takes a dip. Normalise it by showing your emotions and how you deal with them whether it be by talking to a partner or friend, exercise, seeking outside help etc. Make it normal and safe to talk about feelings, let them know you are there when they are ready to talk but don’t push.
Look out for when a few days of low mood or anxiety becomes something more serious. If you find you are unable to help at home please seek out a professional that can help before it becomes too serious. Often a mental health issue can be resolved fairly quickly if the problem hasn’t had time to become deeply embedded. Look out for signs that your teenager may need some outside help. These include; becoming withdrawn, not wanting to leave the house, loss of interest in hobbies, changes in appetite, becoming angry, disrupted sleep, feeling of worthlessness.
By Amber Morgan
Licensed NLP4Kids Practitioner
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