Understanding the Incredible Teenage Brain: Part 3
While the teen years are amazing, they can also be tumultuous as the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system, is “turbo boosted” during adolescence. Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis explains that teens are “biologically primed” to operate from their limbic system and be driven be their feelings around 90% of the time. This means you might notice more emotional intensity in your adolescent.
In part 1 of this blog series, you learned all about the incredible teenage brain, and the changes that happen in adolescence.
In part 2 of this blog series, you learned about the brain’s superpower, plasticity, for a more balanced view of the incredible teen years – incredibly amazing and full of possibility as well as the challenges that can come.
In part 3 of this blog series let’s look at brain-based ways to connect and support your teen with the powerful feelings and mighty motivations that come their way. We will start with some ideas for managing emotional storms, and then some general tips.
“The teenage years are dominated by strong feelings – highs and lows, passions and motivations. It is a time when we fall in love with something or someone, when experiences are felt more intensely perhaps than at any other time in life and those emotional memories stay with us for life”.
Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 183
A Quick Brain Based Recipe for Managing Emotional Storms:
Nathan Wallis has a great 3 step recipe to support big emotions based on the metaphor of understanding the brain as having 3 parts: the survival brain, the emotional brain, and the thinking brain.
Start with brain number 1 - the survival brain.
This means helping them find their calm first before trying to talk. The brain needs to feel safe. You might logically think it’s safe, but the brain’s survival instinct means it feels first and thinks later so remember to empower your patience and compassion with what you know about the teen brain and stay emotionally present as you help your young person settle. You don’t have to “fix it”, whatever “it” is, just being present in a non-judgmental, accepting, confident way without taking the emotional storm personally will make a huge difference.
Then move to brain number 2 – the emotional brain.
Soothe brain number 2 by validating the emotions before trying to get logical. “Feelings are valid expressions of what is going on for the young person, not just hormones” (Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 183). Empathy plays a vital role in connecting with your teenager. Validate their emotions, even if you may not fully understand or agree with them. Show compassion and offer a listening ear, providing them with the support they need to navigate their emotions effectively.
Acceptance of emotions doesn’t mean we accept inappropriate behaviour. It means we accept how our child is feeling, that it’s their reality. If you’ve ever been told there’s nothing to be upset or angry about when you truly feel this way, you will completely understand this. After accepting their feelings are real to them, we help kids with co-regulation and emotion coaching, and then shaping their behaviour and building their skills.
Finish with brain number 3 – the thinking brain.
Then after supporting the survival and emotional brains you can move to logic and reasoning and talking things through. Brains number 1 and 2 need support before you can move to brain number 3, the thinking brain. Missing the crucial steps of calming and validating is a large part of why teens often feel their parents don’t understand them.
General Tips for Supporting Teens: 1. Stay Present during the Changes and Challenges: Stay present for your teen by finding ways to be open to the changes and challenges associated with adolescences. Aim to be receptive and responsive, rather than reactive; and to connect instead of or before correcting. Create a safe and non-judgmental space where they feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Listen actively, validate their experiences, and avoid jumping to conclusions or criticizing their perspectives.
“If I had to summarize in one word all of the research on what kind of parenting helps create the best conditions for a child’s and adolescent’s growth and development, it would be the term “presence”.”
Daniel Seigel, 2013: 217 – 218
This creates a sense of “feeling felt” which helps kids feel seen, safe, soothed, and secure and it is the essence of healthy relationships. As yes, this definitely matters more than jumping straight in to “fix things”. “Fixing” comes after, if at all. It can be hard to resist wanting to fix things because we love our kids so much and don’t want them to suffer, so make sure to look after yourself so that you can slow things down and go at your teen’s pace. Sometimes just being present really is all they need.
Find out more about the important of kids feeling seen, safe, soothed, and secure in this blog https://www.drleoniewhite.com/post/show-up-to-grow-great-kids-leave-a-positive-family-legacy
2. Open and Non-Judgmental Communication: Maintain open lines of communication with your teenager. Create a safe and non-judgmental space where they feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Listen actively, validate their experiences, and avoid jumping to conclusions or criticizing their perspectives.
3. Setting Clear Boundaries: Establish reasonable, clear and consistent boundaries that promote safety and responsible behaviour e.g., regarding curfew, schoolwork, screentime, chores and other responsibilities. Involve your teenager in the process to help with their sense of ownership, explaining the reasoning behind the rules. By doing so, you strike a balance between granting them independence and providing necessary guidance. Encourage them to take ownership of their actions and understand the consequences of their choices.
4. Empathy and Understanding: Adolescence can be a challenging time emotionally. Show empathy and understanding towards your teenager's experiences. Acknowledge their emotions, even if you don't always agree with their behaviour. Help them develop emotional regulation skills by providing guidance and modelling healthy coping strategies.
5. Encourage Healthy Decision-Making: Help your teenager understand the potential consequences of their actions by discussing risks and benefits openly. Teach them how to evaluate choices critically and make informed decisions. Develop “what if” plans for any potential challenges, e.g., “What if you are offered alcohol at the party?” "What if your friend drinks too much as passes out?" "What will you do if you get lost hiking on that trail?"
6. Encouraging Independence and Responsibility: Adolescence is a time for teenagers to develop autonomy and take on increasing responsibilities. Provide opportunities for them to make decisions, solve problems, and take on age-appropriate tasks. Offer guidance and support, allowing them to learn from their mistakes while building confidence and competence. “Finding the balance between watching and waiting and intervening so a young person doesn’t lose opportunities is tough” (Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 41) but well worth the struggle.
7. Promoting Healthy Sleep Habits: Help your teenager establish a consistent sleep routine that aligns with their changing sleep patterns. Encourage a relaxing bedtime routine, limit screen time before bed, and create a conducive sleep environment. Adequate sleep supports their cognitive function, mood regulation, and overall well-being.
Find out more about sleep in my blog “Back to Basics”.
8. Encouraging Healthy Lifestyle Choices: Promote a healthy lifestyle by encouraging regular exercise, nutritious eating habits, and stress management techniques. Engage in physical activities together as a family, model healthy eating habits, and teach them effective stress reduction strategies e.g., journaling, mindfulness, or engaging in hobbies. Demonstrate positive behaviour and values in your choice of actions. Your actions have a significant impact on your teenager's development, so lead by example in communication, empathy, and handling stress.
Encourage involvement in positive extracurricular activities that promote personal growth and build self-esteem.
9. Teach Emotional Regulation: Adolescence can be emotionally challenging. Help your teenager understand and manage their emotions by modelling your own emotional language and stress management strategies, and introduce and coach coping strategies, such as deep breathing, exercise, music, drawing, mindfulness, or journaling.
10. Stay Informed: Stay informed about your teenager's activities, friends, and interests (without being intrusive). Being aware of their world allows you to better understand their needs and offer appropriate guidance. It also shows them that you are interested in them and care about them and this builds your relationship. It also helps to get to know their friends. Consider getting your teen to invite a friend over for dinner and cook their favourite meal- food is a great connector.
11. Celebrate Achievements: Acknowledge and celebrate your teenager's accomplishments, even small wins. This can involve direct feedback and “competence conversations” where you harness your curiosity to engage in conversations that draw out the young person’s reasoning and help develop their socio-emotional competence. Competence conversations are more powerful and effective than paise alone and help develop a growth mindset.
Find out more about competence conversations in this blog
Celebrating achievements fosters self-esteem and motivation, and curious conversations foster skills, competence, self-worth and resilience.
12. Seek Professional Support when Needed: Keep in mind that some teenagers may face more significant challenges during this developmental stage, such as mental health concerns or learning difficulties. It may also be a time when neurodiversity is more noticeable, or really noticed for the first time, and you might like to seek help to understand this. If you notice persistent or significant behavioural changes or struggles, consider seeking professional support from therapists, counsellors, or educators.
13. Honour the Person Your Teen is Becoming: Discover the teen you have been given. Don’t try to make them into the person you think they should be – you’ll both end up feeling disconnected and awful. This doesn’t mean we don’t help them develop values and principles. It means we respect their individuality and their differences from us, like when we let them choose soccer although they come from 3 generations of cricket. We can still teach them the value of being a team player and a good sport within their own unique individuality.
Think of your teenager like a surprise gift, to unwrap, discover, get to know, and nurture on their own unique path to help them become the best version of themself.
This might be trickier for you if your teen is working out aspects of their identity relating to things like gender and sexuality, but being present and open will help them, and will allow us to play an important role in our teen’s development and life.
14. Maintaining a Compassionate, Loving and Supportive Environment: Above all, maintain a loving and supportive environment for your teenager. Let them know that you are there for them unconditionally, even when they make mistakes or face difficulties. Offer praise and encouragement for their achievements and provide reassurance during times of uncertainty.
Be aware that they may reach their “tipping point” more easily than you think. I recommend this advice from Maggie Dent “Own the compassion in your life. Greet them even when they don’t deserve it. Love your teen when they don’t deserve it because this is a really wobbly time of their lives and anything we can do that puts some joy some grace some hope and some love into that barometer of theirs we reduce the chances of them reaching a tipping point where they could possibly hurt themselves” Teen Tipping Point Maggie Moment – YouTube 2018
This matters so much because, “Children’s brains thrive when interacting with adults who have the brain capacity to love them unconditionally, experience joy from being with them, pay close attention to them and understand them deeply” (Hughes and Baylin, 2012: 12).
15. Practice Self Compassion: Self-compassion is about being kind to ourselves, and it really matters, even at a neurobiological level, especially when things get challenging.
If you treat yourself (and others) with an attitude of kindness this activates a relaxation response in the brain with endorphins and oxytocin released positively shaping thought, emotions and sensation. Self-compassion is also fantastic to model for our kids so that they can develop this for themselves. Self-compassion involves being warm and kind to ourselves even when we mess up or are struggling emotionally. Try talking to yourself the way you would a valued friend to practice this. It also involves “common humanity”, the understanding that we all struggle, that it’s a shared human experience and you are not alone – you are definitely not alone in finding parenting a challenge!
The teenage years can be incredible in so many ways and your relationship is foundational. Here’s a quote highlighting how important you are to your teen:
"The best way to travel through the teenage years is by taking a relationship-based approach and understanding the teenage brain. Doing so provides parents with the necessary foundation for their teenagers to navigate adolescence with resilience, confidence, and a sense of belonging. Embrace the opportunities for growth and learning during the teenage stage and remember that your support and guidance can have a lasting positive impact on your teenager's development and well-being. Let’s “’re-brand’ the adolescent years as an exciting and optimistic time, with enormous potential."
Hohnen, Gilmour & Murphy, 2020: 28
Remember, you are not alone, be kind to yourself, strap yourself in armed with knowledge about the brain, believe these years are full of potential, and enjoy the ride.
“Teens are daring, emotional, thoughtful, courageous, sensitive, innovative, pioneering, inspirational, interested and interesting. They experience lifetime firsts at a head-spinning rate while pushing the boundaries of academic and life learning to new highs. Managing one would be impressive, doing both at the same time is phenomenal. Incredible really.”
Hohnen, Gilmour & Murphy, 2020: 325
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
References & Resources:
Dahl, R. & Suleiman, A. (2017). Adolescent Brain Development: Windows of Opportunity. The Adolescent Brain: A second window of opportunity A Compendium. 7 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
Dent, M. (2021). From Boys to Men: Guiding Our Teen Boys to Grow into Happy, Healthy Men. Pan Macmillan Australia: Sydney.
Geidd, J. (2016) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-amazing-teen-brain/
Geidd, J. (2015). The amazing teen brain. Scientific American, June 2015, 32 – 37.
Heffernan, L. & Harrington, M. D. (2019). Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults. Flatiron Books: New York.
Hohnen, B., Gilmour, J. & Murphy, T. (2020). The Incredible Teenage Brain: Everything You Need to Know to Unlock Your Teen’s Potential. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.
Hughes, D. & Baylin, J. (2012). Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment. WW Norton and Company: London.
Neufeld, G. & Mate, G. (2019). Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers. Vermilion: London.
Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Penguin: New York.
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