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Life’s so unfair: a parent’s guide to the teenage brain

Posted on 23 March 2018

Some days, it takes the patience of a saint to parent a self-centered, moody and seemingly lazy teenager. In a nanosecond their mood can flip from one extreme to the other. What is going on with them? - And how should parents react?

We’ve gathered insight from leading neuroscientists and psychologists to offer parents the following survival guide.

It’s all in the frontal lobe

The frontal lobe area of the brain which controls cognitive skills such as emotional expression, problem solving, planning and judgment, starts to grow during adolescence. Up to the age of about 20 young people simply don’t have the brain necessary to regulate their behaviour or emotions in the way most adults can.

Hardwired to take risks

In fact several studies show that teens are biologically hardwired to take risks. They may not necessarily take more risks than an adult when they are on their own but that changes with friends.

Even showing off to friends isn’t as dumb as it might look

Teens are more influenced by their peer group than any other age group because it’s their safe-space to take risks, experiment, and explore where they fit in the social hierarchy, as they transition from dependence on family to independence. Showing off is a good thing, it enables them to try on independence for size through experimentation.

It’s parents, not teenagers that are the problem

There’s often a mismatch between how parents expect teenagers to behave and what their brain is capable of. They may have the physical appearance of a young adult but in reality their younger brains are still adapting to be able to plan, make decisions and inhibit inappropriate responses. As adults we need to learn to adjust our expectations.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread

It’s a brave parent that doesn’t knock and wait for permission to enter their teenager’s bedroom. Those that make it over the threshold are likely to encounter a scene Mary Berry might describe as “informal”. A miasma created by dirty crockery, unchanged bed sheets and damp towels festering on the floor. Before launching into a lecture, remember they are developing the cognitive organisation and planning skills that enable adults to be tidy. They simply don’t give themselves enough time to tidy up before running off to do something else more important.

Keeping antisocial hours

Teen brains are biologically wired to be night owls. They go to bed late and struggle to rise in the morning. Rather than encouraging them to “stop wasting the day” it’s helpful for parents understand that the circadian rhythms of the brain, the body’s internal biological clock that controls when we feel sleepy and when we wake up is reset, telling the teenager to fall asleep later and wake up later.

That said, check devices aren’t keeping them up. Teens need eight to ten hours sleep per night to function at best. Most teens aren’t getting enough sleep with only 15% saying they get 8.5 hours on a school night.

Screens and teens

While the jury’s out on how much screen time is too much, it’s up to parents to make a personal judgment. We do know from recent studies that teenagers struggle to regulate time spent on mobile devices and their learning is impaired when they flit between their smartphone and homework. Their frontal lobe isn’t sufficiently developed to understand the benefit using their phones in moderation. Parents can help their teen learn how to use technology in a healthy way but setting a good example around their own consumption and enforcing clear boundaries on use during homework and at bedtime.

Mood swings: what’s normal and when to worry?

Hormones, growth spurts, and exam pressure create the perfect storm for changeable behavior. Once again, their lack of self-control is due to undeveloped frontal lobes. Although the temptation as parents is to be cross, doing so tends to set up a vicious cycle, alienating your teen. Make time to talk in a non-confrontational way. Teens notoriously hate talking to their parents about sensitive subjects eye-to-eye, and often respond better to conversations conducted in the car or walking alongside together.

Parents are right to keep a close watch on their teen’s mental health; if they are going to develop mental ill health, it’s statistically more likely to happen during this stage of life. Keep an eye out if your child seems to be socially isolated or gain or lose a lot of weight. This may be a sign of mental or emotional distress.

Key take-away

Recent developments in MRI scanning have enabled neuroscientists to understand that the challenging behaviour teenagers display reflects a developing brain transitioning to adult independence. Knowing that, let’s cut our teenagers some slack!