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Understanding Teenagers’ Brains and Behaviour

What do we all need to know?

The current period of social restriction due to the Covid-19 pandemic is difficult for all of us in different ways. For teenagers, there are some specific pressures which can make this period of isolation from friends and school even more challenging.

Whether you are a stressed-out teenager or a frustrated parent/carer, the following information will explain some confusing behaviours and give you hints that might help everybody to cope better in during the current restrictions. This guide will also be helpful for staff working with teenagers when returning to school.

Brain Changes in Teenage Years

Scientists have discovered that our brains physically change in response to our experiences throughout our lives, with the teenage years being a time of significant brain change. This means there is a great opportunity to learn and develop new skills and knowledge, and to become more ‘expert’ at some things. There are also things which become more challenging during the teen years, and it can be helpful to understand why.

Adolescence covers an age range of approximately 11 to 18 years. The first change early in adolescence is that teenage brains undertake a major period of growth and restructuring. Lots of new connections are made between the cells in the brain. This means there is lots of potential for new learning – this is why it’s easier to learn new knowledge and skills when you are a teenager than when you are an adult. Later on, those connections which are not being used regularly get ‘pruned’. This means that the connections that are not used die away while the ones which are used regularly remain and get stronger. So, if we don’t continue to practise skills, we can lose them.

Finally, in late adolescence the connections between brain cells that are used most often are made extremely fast and efficient in a process called ‘myelination’.  Myelin  is  an  insulating layer  around  connections of  brain  cells. This insulation allows connections to be made more quickly and efficiently. This allows us to become  experts at certain skills or activities.

One consequence of the changes described above is that in a teenager the prefrontal cortex of the brain - which is the part which helps us to make reasoned decisions, be logical, think through consequences and self-regulate - is not fully developed or working efficiently. However, the part of the brain responsible for our  instant emotional reaction to events, the limbic system, is fully developed, and it can take over the decision making very easily.

Teenagers and Emotions

Given that teenage brains are still developing, this influences how teenagers experience and demonstrate emotions. Parents often witness teenagers showing real rawness of how they feel emotionally. It is also not uncommon for parents to experience teenagers behaving in emotionally extreme ways e.g. extremes of anger, sadness, anxiety etc. It is important to remember that there are biological reasons for this linked to the development of the teenage brain. Teenage emotions are driven by the development of an individual’s own identity. This relates directly to what others think about them, especially their closest peers. Inevitably teenagers become most concerned by the opinions of their friends. As a result, teenagers experience a heightened sense of embarrassment and are highly sensitised to social exclusion. Social media can amplify these feelings which can result in a teenager feeling very anxious, stressed or depressed.

How can we best support teenagers with their emotions?

  • Take a calm and soothing parental approach
  • Improve our knowledge about teenage brain development
  • Try not to react emotionally to teenage behaviours demonstrating extremes of emotions
  • Be aware of the importance of the influence of teenage friends have
  • Support teenagers to engage with friends, but continue to be available for them if/when things go  wrong

Find out more about managing anxiety.

Risk Taking and Peer Pressure

Adults often think of risk taking as being negative and associated with danger, however it’s a positive and necessary trait for development. Risk taking is important as it pushes us to have new experiences and to challenge ourselves. It is well worth doing, even if we can’t be certain about there being a positive outcome, or that we might experience some uncomfortable feelings associated with it.

All of us are programmed to take some risks in order to succeed, however some of us are bigger risk takers than others. This applies to our teenage years too. Every teenager is an individual and while not all teenagers are risk takers or sensation seekers, there is evidence that risky behaviours peak during the teenage years and that these risks can often be associated with experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Other typical perceived anti-social behaviours such as congregating in large groups, being rude to adults in the community, petty vandalism or free running may also be examples of teenagers taking risks.

The current context of social distancing, and schools and clubs being closed means that our teenagers have restricted movement, reduced opportunities and experiences, and no physical contact with those beyond their families. As time goes on and they miss their usual social interactions with peer groups, as well as their usual freedoms out with the family home, they may well be tempted to take risks and break social distancing rules. It is helpful to be aware of the main drivers of risk taking for teenagers.

What impact do peers have on teenage risk taking?

As mentioned in the section on emotions, for teenagers the sense of self (knowing who you are) is particularly important. Being accepted by peers is more important than being accepted by family, and this has an impact on feelings of self-worth.

Therefore, teens may be very sensitive to others’ opinions and they may adapt to friends’ expectations and social norms in order to be included in a friendship group. This can also be very difficult for parents and other family members to understand. They have previously been the biggest social influence on their children up until now and may feel like they are being pushed aside and losing their child’s respect. Moreover, they still have a parental responsibility to keep their child safe and to support their decision making, yet there’s a drive for the young person to become independent of their parents.

These are tricky dynamics to navigate. While parents will likely focus on health and safety concerns (such as detrimental effects of smoking, drugs or alcohol) teenagers will have to grapple with the challenges of peer pressure and approval – “what will my peers think if I don’t go along with them?” In some situations, teenagers may take risks when they’re with their friends that they would not take when on their own for fear of being ostracised or ridiculed by a peer group.

Is there a biological explanation for teenage risk taking?

Remember the limbic system is more “in charge” during teenage years. This area gives us rewarding feelings from doing fun things, and this will often include risk taking behaviours. As this brain area is more impulsive and not linked to more careful and logical ways of thinking, there is more likelihood of riskier decisions being made. This helps explain that when you ask a teenager why they have done something risky or unsafe they may reply “because I felt like it”.

How can we best support teenagers with risk taking?

Maintaining positive and constructive relationships with teenagers is crucial. These relationships may not always feel fulfilling, and you and they may often find yourselves disagreeing and having arguments. However, even though it might not feel like it, communicating with your teenager that you care and are available for them will significantly increase the likelihood of them leaning on you at times of difficulty. Such relationships also provide the foundations for you to be able to talk to them about the following issues:

Discuss social media use with them, discussing both the benefits and risk factors

Involve your teen in decision making. Share facts around risks such as Covid-19, alcohol, and drugs. This will help engage their thinking around risks and decrease acting on impulse. It may also encourage them to share with you their fears around not conforming to friends’ norms

Teenagers and Sleep

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone but especially important for teenagers. This is because sleep supports brain maturation during teenage years. Due to brain development and function, and melatonin (the hormone produced by our brains that induces sleep) being released approximately 3 hours later in the evening for teenagers than it is for adults, most teenagers have different sleep patterns compared with younger children and adults. As a result, most teenagers are not ready to sleep until late evening and may find getting up early really quite difficult. A further factor impacting on teenage sleep comes from research studies about teenagers’ use of computers, games consoles, smartphones, and social media etc. These studies have found that IT activities conducted near bedtimes can often have a stimulating effect on the brain, thereby acting as a barrier to the brain chemicals which induce sleep, and therefore preventing good sleep patterns.

Given all the above, getting up and ready to go to school is often tricky for teenagers. Mornings can become very stressful times in the homes of teenagers; therefore, parental understanding and support for their teenagers to get up and organised for school / home based learning is very important!

How can we best support teenagers with sleep?

  • Take into account the information outlined above, and agree with your teenager a regular and reasonable bedtime and wake-up routine
  • A cool bedroom temperature encourages better sleep
  • Dimmed lights prior to sleep is best
  • Access to all forms of IT should be removed at least one hour before sleeping
  • Encourage consistent sleep routines, good diet and regular exercise - have some sympathy for them that they may be very tired in the morning

Practical approaches for supporting teenagers

  • Watch some of the videos that we have included, so you’ve got a shared understanding of the teenage brain and behaviours
  • Stay calm and connected to your teen as much as you can, even in the face of confusing signals from them. We’re hard wired to mirror others so the more you stay calm, the more your teen will model this
  • Protect some time every day to talk about their interests, even though these interests may not match yours
  • Keep in mind that this time of development is a phase, and even though interactions can be difficult, it is an important and exciting phase
  • Remember “use it or lose it” - positive interactions will further develop the thinking and reasoning parts of the teenage brain while decreasing more impulsive fight, flight and freeze responses
  • Try to keep body language as open and clear as possible, and even state calmly what you’re feeling – remember your teen might find faces or body language difficult to read and may misinterpret your feelings or intentions
  • Do not try to reason with your teen when they are upset or angry. They need to be in a calm state, and feel connected to you before you can reason with them
  • Think back to your own experience as a teenager and times when you’ve made a wrong decision. This will help you to empathise with your teen and encourage you to be curious about their actions rather than furious!
  • Embrace mistakes and reassure your teen and yourself that mistakes are a normal part of life. Be thoughtful in your feedback. Reassure them that ruptures in relationships are normal and can be repaired
  • Listen first before jumping in to give your opinion or fix their problem for them. Use phrases such as “I’m wondering if you’re feeling……” to check out what you’ve heard
  • Be aware that our children and young people’s routines have significantly changed and not seeing friends will likely be very difficult. An increase of free time may also mean an increase in anxiety. Have empathy for what they might be missing and don’t dismiss their anxieties even though they seem small
  • Find another adult for support if you feel you’re getting nowhere despite positive interactions. It can help to have another adult to talk to and connect with
  • Humour is a really helpful tool in de-escalating situations. This needs to be judged carefully and without sarcasm

Helpful reading

  • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (2019). Inventing ourselves. The secret life of the teenage brain. Penguin Random House. London.
  • Nicola Morgan (2013). Blame my brain. The amazing teenage brain revealed. Walker Books Ltd. London.
  • Dan Siegel. (2014). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. Scribe Publications. London.
  • Dan Siegel  (2012).  The whole  brain  child. Revolutionary  strategies  to nurture  your  child’s developing  mind.  Robinson. London.