We are all having to cope with a lot in a COVID19 world and if you’re a parent or carer of a teen you will undoubtedly have more on your plate than ever!

This months blog will focus on providing some knowledge and insight for the all important ‘tool box’ when it comes to coping, supporting and dealing with the teenager in your life.

I have over 30 years of experience working with vulnerable and marginalised young people. As a youth worker and now psychotherapist I have provided interventions that have contributed to reduced anger, anxiety and depression that has increased, placement stability, reduced crime, raised academic attainment and school attendance.

I offer these insights to provide you with some context whilst emphasising the importance of remaining present and emotional intelligence .

The teenage brain is a mass of chemical and electrical activity; billions of neurons seeking to make sense of perceived reality. The teenage brain has, in neurological terms, a plasticity that, when harnessed, provides the opportunity to learn new skills at an expediential rate.

However, at the same time the teenage mind is also experiencing a significant ‘rewiring’ as it seeks to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In short… it’s pretty mentally challenging to be a teenager… or the parent or carer of one.

National Institute for Mental Health  (USA) proffers 7 things to know about the human brain;

  1. The brain reaches its biggest size in early adolescence
  2. The brain continues to mature even after it has stopped growing.
  3. The teen brain is ready to learn and adapt
  4. Many mental disorders may begin to appear during adolescence
  5. Teen brains may be more vulnerable to stress
  6. Teens need more sleep than children and adults
  7. The teen brain is resilient.

These are neurological truths that mean teenagers are prone to risk taking behaviours and or emotional outbursts.

It is the reason that teenagers need more sleep, as this ‘rewiring’ consumes a significant amount of energy meaning there is an increased need for REM sleep as this is how the mind recuperates after prolonged activity, removing toxins as a consequence.

Think of REM as performing a similar function to that of the kidneys. Not enough REM means that the teenage brain is more prone to stress. Stress will manifest as anger, fear or sadness, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, plus or signs and symptoms of depression.

In addition, the teenage brain is overly reliant on the emotional mind as the neurological connection to the pre-frontal cortex is yet to be made. This emotional mind is made up of the Amygdala, Hypothalamus and Hippocampus, all areas hard-wired to be responsible for our survival.

When your teen feels stress the emotional mind will step in and remove logical thought form the equation.

Think of it as stress pouring into a bucket. Like all buckets it will overflow unless something is done about it.

When this proverbial stress bucket overflows the Amygdala steps in to ensure our survival; instructing us to hit it, run away from it or hide from it.

This is fuelled by the hypothalamus that produces hormones like adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisone.

When these chemicals fuel the teenage mind the hippocampus reverts to the behaviour that ensured our survival in the past; slamming doors, running out of the house or shutting themselves away in their room are behavioural examples of anger, fear and sadness.

The behaviours of a teenager are never personal, it may feel like it when you’re on the receiving end but that’s the point, it feels personal. 

Seeing and understanding these connections and accepting how they influence the thinking and behaviour of your teen is a vital first step in understanding their behaviour and how you can help support them through this challenging time.

It is also essential that in order to cope, deal and support the teenager in your life that the parent or carer manage their own stress bucket.

Easier said than done, yes, but change is possible with application and help as required.

It is imperative that for the parent or carer, engage their prefrontal cortex; the area of the brain that is responsible for skills like planning, prioritising, and controlling impulses. It is a connectivity that the adult mind has but, the teenage brain is yet to establish.

In the heat of conflict or desperation, between a parent/carer and teenager, it is neurologically understandable that the parent/carer will be experiencing stress, however the neurological math here is this;

Emotional mind v emotional mind equals increased stress for all concerned and deployed escalating emotionally behaviours. 

Think about that last painful outburst, to a greater or lesser extent it concluded with an emotional outburst between the parent/carer and teenager.

Conversely an intellectual mind v an emotional mind equals defusing of emotional behaviours and decreased stress for all concerned.

Think about the time you positively intervened and prevented a full on row. Think about how you achieved that; you will have thought, felt and behaved differently. It was undoubtedly something you did and what you did provided a sense of safety for your teenager. As the grown up you retained intellectual control, made a proper assessment of the situation and implemented the right solution for you and the teenager in your life.

These positive thoughts, feelings and behaviours when noticed, savoured and valued will reduce the stress in your bucket and enable you to cope, deal with and support the teenager in your life.

The behaviours of a teenager are never personal, it may feel like it on the receiving end but that the point, it feels personal.

When you think about it the neurology of the teenage brain means we are able to contextualise and accept that it is not fully able to think the way an adult brain takes for granted.

A teenage brain is just feeling, it is literally ill equipped to cope with the changes brought on by puberty, the social media they are exposed to 24/7 and the never ending influences they are exposed to telling them what to think, want and be.

If you take nothing else away from this piece consider this; Don’t obsess about the behaviour of yesterday, it is in the past.

Undoubtedly this will need to be learnt from but choose that moment carefully. Dwelling on the past is the potential kindling for trauma.  Constantly reliving the past means that the parent/carer or teenager is unable to neurologically move on.

By focusing on what can be changed and committing to it, whilst accepting the things that cannot be changed, it is possible to foster greater resilience in the parent or carer and provide the space and time for the teenager to think, feel and behave more positively.

 

Brett Rennolds is a qualified psychotherapist DSFH, HPD, MNCH NCH Supervisor and registered with the Complimentary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).  Brett specialises in a solution-focused approach, complimented by the principles of CBT, ACT, mental health first aid and hypnotherapy.  He continues to provide therapy online, via an encrypted platform.  For more information please visit his website.