They’re needy and dramatic!
They’re highly emotional and hard to understand!
They’re fighting for independence while craving love and care.
This narrative might sound like one of a toddler but it’s also true of your teen. The brain goes through one of the most dramatic growth spurts during both these stages. Brain development suggests that raging hormones, voice changes and hair growth aren’t the only changes responsible for your teen’s crazy behavior.
As our children become teenagers the brain goes through a pruning process to get rid of the unused connections while strengthening other connections. This remodeling process begins in the back of the brain while the prefrontal cortex is remodeled last and continues into adulthood. Since the prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain responsible for your child’s ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems and control impulses it has a huge impact on how your teen behaves.
How can you help your teen carry a healthy brain into adulthood?
- Don’t freak out. It’s easy to panic when you watch your teens behave differently then how you’ve raised them. Your teen is God’s masterpiece in progress and we need to parent with faith rather than fear.
- Become a student. This phase brings unique opportunities to shape your teen’s thinking and processing skills. Instead of getting frustrated learn who they are and train them in the way they should go to spur on positive changes.
- Be patient. Because of the pruning process you will hear yourself repeating instructions. Your teen needs you to patiently parent differently.
- Clue them in. You might wonder who replaced your perfectly calm and rational thinking child with an overly dramatic, emotional, impulsive and aggressive child! Because the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers might rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behavior. Be ready to be misunderstood as well as expect a display of intense emotions and drama. This too shall pass, as they say. Help your teen understand what’s going on in their brain and how it impacts them an others, but don’t let them use it as an excuse.
- Introduce new thinking skills. The brain becomes more interconnected and gains processing power during these years. They have the potential to gain adult decision making skills but they need access to information. However, during these years their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions because their brain relies more on the emotional seat of the brain because the rational part of the brain is under construction. Don’t box your teen in and tell them what to do. Instead, give them a wide range of reasoning skills so they can establish their own way of thinking. Ask for a list of options, talk through decisions step by step, and ask about possible courses of action and potential consequences. Encourage them to weigh positive rewards against negative ones.
- Their activities matter. Teens are driven to establish a sense of purpose. Repeated skills, activities and habits during these years make connections and have the potential to become ‘hard wired’ in the brain. Give them space to explore new activities. Once they discover what they like, help them build positive character traits and a sense of purpose by routinely engaging them in those activities.
- Help them take healthy risks. Your teen is wired to not only take risks, but higher ones. Teach them how to take healthy risks, like traveling and sports rather then negative ones like smoking and stealing. Teach them to measure risks and be available when they experience setbacks and failure. And speaking of failure; it’s ok to let your teens fail at things. In fact, they need to learn how to fail, and learn from their mistakes.
- New emotional outlets. Hormones and brain construction make teens overly emotional. Help them find new and creative ways to learn self-control as well as release and express their emotions. Some good outlets include sports, creative arts, music and writing.
- Set boundaries. Your teen needs boundaries to feel safe and loved but the boundaries you set need to make sense in light of ‘today’ and align with their personal beliefs. They’re interested in the now, not the future. Give them opportunities to negotiate (not argue) boundaries to increase their processing skills.
- Help them get lots of sleep. They love staying up but teens need an average of 9 hours of sleep for healthy brain development. Teach them how to wind down and relax.
- Family routine. Teens might be busy but they still need family structure. Ignore their eye rolling, don’t give them an out and continue to engage in weekly family routines like meals, walks, family nights, outings, etc.
- Model It. Are you modeling choices, emotions and thinking processes that you want your teen to learn? Also. in the heat of the moment you'll often find yourself mirroring the same behaviors you're trying to correct in your teen. Does your response and emotions to their drama model what you want them to catch?
- Affection. Often parents tend to change how they show physical affection to their children as they enter puberty. Teens need to know that their parents still love them, especially through all the changes. Find ways to physically and verbally express love.
- Give frequent affirmation. Words have power. You might feel like you’re living in a constant battle zone where your own affirmation is sparse. Their brain needs frequent positive affirmation (and rewards) to reinforce healthy pathways in the brain, and for life.
- Engage your village. It takes a village to raise kids. Your voice might become soft during these years. Invite other adults you trust to model and actively engage in your teen's life. Invite them over and create regular opportunities for them to connect.