Written by: Cally Worden
You could be forgiven for thinking that the words ‘Happy’ and ‘Teenager’ are unlikely companions. But despite the moods and scowls that can seem to dominate teenage demeanour most have a great capacity for happiness – as parents we just need to understand how to access it, which in turn makes raising happy teenagers a wonderful task.
It’s all in the Brain
Recent research has finally provided evidence that supports that which parents have known all along – teenage brains are wired a little differently from adult ones. During the teenage years the brain undergoes significant structural changes, with key neural pathways being established that will help to determine longer-term behaviours.
While this is going on your teen is extremely sensitive to the nuances of communications made in their direction. The simplest eye contact, tone of voice or way in which you word a request stimulates a release of chemicals in the teen brain – pitch it right and a flood of dopamine will produce a calm and rational teenager. Get it wrong and cortisol will dominate the hormone flow, raising your teen’s stress levels and causing that stroppy behaviour that is so familiar.
It is now known that the amygdala (a lump of neurons deep in the brain and shaped like an almond) is prone to be hyperactive and terribly sensitive in the teenage years. Its function is linked to both fear (leading to aggression) and pleasure (linked to sexual interest). When you realise that this inoffensive little cluster also plays a significant role in the way we process emotions, you begin to see why teens can be a bit tetchy. Understanding this process, and helping you teen to grasp it too, can help you both to learn how best to manage communications during this difficult time.
The Changing Face of Teenagerhood
Over the last two decades the world that teenagers inhabit has changed beyond all recognition. The explosion of social media, mobile technology and reality TV has presented teens with a whole new set of experiences to navigate. The increasing independence that teens experience has always been a challenge, but as parents we could at least relate to it a little in times gone by.
Today’s teen parents are largely ill-equipped to guide their teen through a young adult landscape that is just as unfamiliar to them as it is to their hormonally challenged offspring. But giving up on them is not an option – this is a time when our children really need us to be present for them, even if our very existence seems to aggravate them.
Reassessing Our Responses
Toddler irrationality pales into insignificance when faced with some of the apparently random emotional outbursts from a teenager. When confronted with a scowl, it’s important to remember the influence of the amygdala, and recall that it causes teens to continually assess threats and dangers. They are not being deliberately aggressive or challenging, just seeking to make sense of their brain’s natural activity. They are testing out their responses to see what reaction they get. And they often don’t even know they are doing it.
By responding in a calm and measured way we can show them that the world is not their enemy, and allow them the space they need to learn how to process these emotions.
Deciphering the Teen Code
Many teen behaviours seem designed simply to irritate. Lethargy, and a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude can seem infuriating to a busy, occupied adult, but in your teen it may be their way of expressing a fear of failure. ‘If I don’t put myself out there I can’t fail’. Reassurance, not nagging may be the most helpful adult response to this.
Similarly, your teen’s obsession with alcohol, or dabbling with drugs, may be a way of easing their insecurities in a crowd. Helping them to build their self-confidence is what is required, not a lecture on the dangers of over-indulgence (although a grown-up dialogue about these issues is vital at some point).
A lonely or isolated teen may seem addicted to Facebook or some other social media site. This desire to fit in, be one of the crowd, is incredibly powerful in the teenage years. Encouraging your teen to build, and become confident in, their sense of identity can help here. You can fit in but still retain your individuality, and self-esteem is a large part of that.
Learn the Lingo
Teens have always relished having a language of their own. Each generation has its ‘in’ words that are designed to flummox even the coolest of parents. Using such terminology is a no-no, but understanding it can help you to translate what your teen is trying to say to you, which can in turn equip you when responding.
Navigating the teenage years will never be easy, for the youngsters or their parents. Being a calm, firm and reassuring presence in our teens’ lives is good common sense. They still need boundaries, but allowing them to test them in a safe and supportive home environment remains as important today as it ever did. Our increased knowledge of neuro-science can help, and a little techno-swotting won’t go amiss either, but at the end of the day our teens need our love and commitment to guide them through these challenging years. Nobody said it would be easy, but this, too, will pass.