Guidelines, not rules (and take a deep breath)
We all seem to expect that teenagers will share our responses and rationalise things the same way we do.
But decades of brain science show us how teenage brains process what is going on around them – and how much more intensely they feel stuff than adults. Once we understand the differences between teen thinking and adult thinking – we can’t ignore the fact it means we have to behave differently as parents. Once we hit adolescence, the part of our brain that sits behind our forehead that is like our personal helicopter-CEO (the prefrontal cortex), is undergoing massive growth and “reconstruction”. Instead, the part of our brains we use most as teens is the part that sits at the top of its stem (think about the base of your brain, at the top of your neck) – our limbic brains.
What does this mean?
Well, when we are stuck in limbic-brain mode, it’s like we feel everything so much more. This part of our brain is far more about “reactions” and where the heightened sense of “fight or flight” comes from. It doesn’t rationalise things the same way as the front part of the brain, which adults rely on to respond to stress, put things into a different perspective and then make decisions. This is awesome – it makes the teen brain more flexible, creative and sponge-like than our adult brains. But what it means is that everything will feel more like a reaction than a response. It will feel that way to teenagers and it will feel that way to you. Inherently, as adults, we just won’t understand what they are feeling and how intensely they are reacting to it. This is why it’s so important to allow teenagers to express how they are feeling and then support them through drawing perspective on it – instead of undermining their feelings and criticising what may seem to you like an “irrational response”.
How do we make it better?
We help our kids to regulate their emotions. We ask a lot of parents during the pandemic. But I want to ask of you one more thing. Something that will help you – and something that will help your teenage child. Don’t react. Respond. Inside themselves, they are already in a world that is full of reaction. An adult who cannot regulate themselves, cannot regulate the emotions of an unregulated child. If there is only one thing you can give your teen, it’s support to help them regulate their own emotions when they are feeling all at sea. Take a breath in, and a five-second pause before you respond to your teenager. When you can’t understand their response to something, ask yourself, “are they responding from their reactive world?” (which feels really real to them), and try not to respond from your own reactive world.
Lastly, you know when you are stressing out about social media? When we hit adolescence, our brains are wired to gain our deepest learning from people outside our immediate family circle. In 2018, psychologists showed that the use of social media by adolescents not only builds connections with their peers, but connections in their brains. But try setting some rules around what they access and for how long, instead of taking away devices.
- Natalie Siegel Brown and Tomas Lopata, Child Wise executive, recently addressed this topic in an Op Ed that was widely published
- The British ‘thinkuknow’ website (which is connected to their law enforcement), contains some great fact sheets on how to have conversations with kids about their online safety, but also about how to build their trust to disclose.