There’s never a dull moment with teens – it’s often like being on a roller-coaster from delightful and insightful in one moment to downright rude, grunting, or shutdown saying nothing. As health professionals, parents, and/or educators, if we examine and understand what is going on for early adolescents, we can help your tween build a healthy teenage brain.
Compliant, agreeable, sweet children are easy. Parenting just seems to happen. Not so with the stubborn, pigheaded, defiant, having a mind of their own, forceful, determined, free-spirited, or just plain difficult tween/teen – these kids require a degree of strategic planning to handle them….or maybe a bottle or two of wine…?
Onset of puberty has definitely changed – getting younger and younger, which certainly is an added complication:
In 1860 the average age of onset for girls was 16.6yrs
In the 1920’s it was 14.6 yrs
In 1950 – 13.1 yrs
In 1980 – 12.5 yrs
In 2010, it had dropped to 10.5yrs
So early adolescence is starting earlier and lasting longer.
Parents often ask me if it is possible that their 8/9 yr old daughter could be experiencing the early stages of puberty? And unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more the case, as confirmed by blood tests.
Andrew Fuller, clinical psychologist, reported that between 10 yrs of age and puberty, the brain ruthlessly destroys its weakest connections, preserving only those that experience has shown to be useful. At this time the brain is restructuring in order to become cleverer and more efficient.
Unfortunately, the frontal lobe is the last bit to mature – which governs us to plan, consider, control impulses, make wise judgements – basically to be kind, caring, considerate people…
The bottom line is, that during this period in early adolescence, the brain is all tuned up for emotions, fighting, running away, romantic love – and has very little capacity for controlling impulses, planning, and forward thinking….
Parents need to be their tweens/teens “frontal lobe”. As Andrew Fuller stated in his book (Tricky Kids), “asking an adolescent to do a lot of forward planning is like asking a toddler to study physics”.
It’s an interesting quirk of evolution that the part of the brain devoted to instinct & emotions (limbic system) develops at a faster rate than the rational, problem-solving & judgement part of brain (prefrontal cortex). Meaning a tween may often respond to perceived threat/upset by being highly emotional – often going straight to fight, flight, or freeze. Early teens feel things very deeply & often struggles to understand or process those feelings. Your child is expressing and trying to control new emotions during this time.
Two useless questions to ask of tweens/teens –
- What were you thinking?! (because highly likely they weren’t) and
- Couldn’t you see they were frightened?! (because they can’t).
Increased Risk-Taking & Impulsive Behaviours
Sensation seeking, risk taking, and reckless behaviour is the norm. Generally, this is due to:
- Desire for an adrenaline rush, viewing it as fun
- Reduce unhappiness/boredom
- Cope with stress
- Improve the chances for sex / romantic connection
- Be more accepted by peers
So, what can you do?
- Promote good thinking skills (be your child’s prefrontal cortex) by helping to create patterns of thinking and habits of learning that are productive). Talk through decisions step by step with your tween/teen. Ask about possible courses of action they might choose, and talk through potential consequences. Encourage your child to weigh up positive consequences or rewards against negative ones.
- Let your child take some healthy risks. New and different experiences help your child develop an independent identity, explore grown-up behaviour, and move towards independence. Emphasise the immediate and long-term consequences of actions. The part of the brain responsible for future thinking (the prefrontal cortex) is still developing. If you talk about how your child’s actions influence both the present and the future, you can help the healthy development of your child’s prefrontal cortex.
- Help your child develop decision-making and problem-solving skills. You and your tween/teen could work through a process that involves defining problems, listing options, and considering outcomes that everyone is happy with. Role-modelling these skills is important too. Never underestimate your power as a parent, someone they ultimately imitate and emulate.
- Encourage empathy. Talk about feelings – yours, your tweens/teens and other people’s. Highlight the fact that other people have different perspectives and circumstances. Reinforce that many people can be affected by one action.
- Help your tween/teen get lots of sleep. Sleep is essential to healthy brain development. Reinforce a regular sleeping routine. On average, teens require 8-10 hours of sleep each night.
- Talk with your tween/teen about their developing brain. Understanding this important period of growth might help your child process their feelings. It might also make taking care of the brain more interesting for them.
- And finally, bombard them with positives. Offer frequent praise and positive rewards as this reinforces pathways in your tweens/teen’s brain. And tell them that you love them….
If you are having a challenging time with your tween/teen, why not give us a call today? Our team of highly skilled and well-experienced Psychologists are here to help. Call us now and take that first step towards obtaining support.