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Teenage turmoil: it really is all in their heads

understanding teen brainsIf you’re the parent of an adolescent, you know the joy: moodiness, defiance, confusion and reckless behaviors interspersed with the sweet child you used to know. It can be frustrating, tiring and nerve-wrecking, but it’s just nature at work. More specifically it’s your child’s brain at work, creating a swirling tsunami of electrical pathways—with a surge of changing hormones added in just for fun.

Adolescence stretches over several years. It can start as early as 10 and continues until around age 25. That’s a long time for parents to watch (and attempt to handle) their teens’ emotional turmoil, questionable antics and clouded judgment. It oftentimes leaves parents to think they’re doing something wrong. But understanding what’s happening inside the brain can not only help you endure; it can also help inform your parenting decisions.

During adolescence, the brain is under construction; developing physically from back to front. That means the brain’s CEO, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, planning, problem-solving and impulse control doesn’t fully develop until adulthood. In the meantime, there is still a lot going on up in their unpredictable heads. Let’s take a look.

Phase 1 – Blossoming.

During this phase, the brain is exploding with new electrical pathways. These pathways, called dendrites, create abundant connections in the brain. The overproduction allows for extensive growth and learning during this period, but it also leads to fuzzy thinking, difficulty planning and slowed decision-making. Think of a road map with a thousand different routes to choose from. That’s what it’s like trying to make decisions for your adolescent child.

Phase 2 – Pruning.

Once all those dendrites have exploded in the brain, it’s time to prune them back, as the brain begins stripping away the unused dendrites in a “use it or lose it” fashion. Pruning is a crucial stage because it presents a window of opportunity where positive patterns of behavior and thinking can be reinforced. Conversely, it’s also a time when negative patterns, such as poor self-esteem or aggression can be locked in. Once these patterns are locked, they follow us into adulthood and become very difficult to change. It’s an important time to engage your adolescents in prosocial activities such as sports, music and other hobbies.

Phase 3 – Myelination.

Each time a connection is used it becomes coated or insulated with a protective myelin sheath. This causes the connection to become stronger and faster but also seals the connection, making it harder to undo or change. So if you start an unhealthy habit during adolescence—like smoking cigarettes, cutting or self-medicating—it’s harder to quit during adulthood because that behavior was set during the myelination process. The upside is that it also seals in the good stuff too, like being able to play a musical instrument or speaking a foreign language. The earlier you are able to help a child or teen learn to manage their emotions, the better off they will be moving into adulthood because those positive coping skills will be reinforced and locked in during this process.

Understanding these phases helps make sense of what’s going- but it’s only one part of the puzzle. A sea of raging hormones are also at play, creating utter chaos in your child’s brain and body.

Boys and Testosterone

During adolescence, boys experience testosterone surges up to 1,000 times the concentration experienced during childhood or adulthood. These surges stimulate the brain’s emotional center, the amygdala, causing increases in behaviors like impulsivity and aggression. Additionally, levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine drop significantly so boys are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors in an effort to replace that diminished pleasure. Boys also experience mild levels of depression during adolescence due to decreases in serotonin levels.

Girls and Myriad Hormones

Girls have their own set of hormonal changes to balance. For them, increases in estrogen and progesterone destabilize the amygdala (again, responsible for emotions) creating significant shifts in mood and amplified emotions (imagine a girl screaming when she sees her favorite pop star). Girls also experience a significant reduction in serotonin levels, making them more susceptible to moderate to high levels of depression.

Three Tips for Parents

Adolescents tend to think more concretely so it’s important to be very black and white. Ask specifically what you want from them. Don’t assume they know what you want (same goes for spouses here!). For example, if you want your child to take the garbage out before dinner, state specifically “Please take the garbage out before you sit down for dinner” rather than just “make sure to take the garbage out” which can be left open to interpretation.

It’s also important to try to pick and choose your battles. This can be difficult, but remember, your child is in a phase where they are seeking independence—fights and arguments are their way of figuring things out. Don’t engage in these battles if you can help it. Use assertive communication instead of arguing back, or state politely that you would be happy to talk things through once they have calmed down. Avoid words such as “need” or “should” to bypass the dreaded “I don’t NEED to do anything!” argument.

Finally, the most important thing you can do is to try and model the behaviors you want to see from them. If you want your child to show follow-through and accountability, then you need to model this behavior for them. If you want your child to calm down in moments of frustration, you can help by modeling calm behavior yourself. Try deep breathing or taking a “time out” to cool off. It’s OK if sometimes you lose your cool; you’re human, after all. If you don’t respond the way you wish you would have, just apologize. It’s an amazing opportunity for you to model accountability and helps repair the relationship after an argument.

Article by Caryn Brakenridge, MA, LPCC. Originally appeared in Coulee Parenting Connection. Reprinted with permission.