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25th Feb 2015

Top Tips From A Child Psychologist On Surviving The Teenage Years

David carey

Funny aren’t they, those teenagers of ours? Moody, noisy, sloppy, crazy, opinionated, challenging and lovable loafers. Why do they do the things they do? Why do they act that way? What is “normal” adolescent behaviour?

Most parents have to tighten the seatbelts and ride out the storm of adolescence. It isn’t easy but it is possible to understand once we take a look at how the teen brain grows and develops. We don’t know everything yet, but what we do know sheds a lot of light on how our teenagers function in family, school and society.

Remember: They haven’t finished maturing yet

We tend to forget that the development stage we call adolescence is a relatively new invention. A century ago in Western society we simply grew from childhood into adulthood, there was no identified transition period. I imagine that in the highly industrialised world, when families needed to put children to work in order to survive there wasn’t much room for a transition. We now recognise that there is a period, usually between the ages of 12 (younger for girls) and 18, when children begin to display some typical traits – adolescence.

The neurosciences have given us ample proof that the human brain does not finish developing and maturing until the mid-20’s. What is particularly important to know is that the regions of the brain that do not mature until later are those responsible for some critically important functions called executive functions: planning, organisation and time keeping. These brain functions are controlled by areas in the frontal cortex of the brain, which is late in maturing. Being able to think ahead, plan for the long-range goal, break things down into manageable steps and then execute a plan is a necessary part of adult life. Our teens simply do not have all the neuronal wiring in order to do that successfully ALL of the time. Some of them can’t do it ANY of the time. It’s exactly why so many secondary school students fall behind in assignments. In fact, a lot of third level students have the same difficulty. It isn’t always because they’re lazy or poorly motivated. Most of the time their brain simply won’t let them do it.

Reasoning isn’t mature until the late teens

The ability to use logic and to think through problems rationally is mediated by brain regions that are late to develop. If we can’t reason, remain calm, think through all sides of a situation or problem we are prone to become emotional, not logical. Since the teen brain isn’t ready to do this it’s only reasonable to assume they need help and assistance just as they do with planning and evaluation. A teenage brain is not always going to be a logical brain.

The ability to postpone gratification isn’t mature

Teenagers want the things they want at the moment they want them. This isn’t because they’re selfish. It’s because their brain isn’t prepared to postpone gratification. This is a result of its difficulty in reasoning, difficulty in planning and difficulty thinking ahead. It’s not their fault; it’s their brain’s fault.

Long-term planning isn’t mature

Teenagers aren’t good at long-term planning. The notion of waiting for something that will happen in a month’s time (sometimes a few week’s time) just isn’t working yet. What we see is impatience, an inability to wait for things, and the constant pressuring of parents to get it now, not tomorrow, not next week, but now.

Mood swings are normal

This is important for parents to recognise. The vast majority of mood swings in adolescence are normal and a result of rapidly changing hormonal levels. A teenage boy reaching puberty will have about a 400 per cent increase in testosterone levels. This will make him more irritable and quick to anger or flare up. Teenage girls, often puberty starting in females as early as age ten, will undergo the same hormonal surges. They may be quick to tear up and quick to anger. Don’t assume your teenager is troubled if they are having mood swings. It is most likely normal development.

Emotions impact on thinking to a huge extent

Teenagers are going to be emotional creatures. They operate most of the time from the deep-seated emotional centres of the brain. These emotional centres are not accessible to reasoning, be it internal or coming from external sources. Trying to use logic and reasoning with a teen that is operating from the emotional brain centres is futile. Just let the storm pass and then sit down and talk.

So, do we parent our teens?

A lot depends on what has happened in the past. If the lines of communication have been kept open, if you have listened and taken the time to think with your adult brain before responding then you have laid the groundwork for a good relationship with your teen.

Patience, understanding and knowing what is normal teen development is your most helpful asset as the parent of a teenager.

David Carey, our resident child psychologist, has over 25 years experience in both clinical and educational settings. The author of several books, he’s also a regular contributor to the Moncrieff show on Newstalk 106-108FM and on TV3.