Understanding the development of the teenage brain for parents

While recent research has shown that although it would appear teenagers may be less at risk from the physical dangers of COVID-19, health professionals are concerned that the emotional impacts may be much greater.

For this reason, The Fathering Channel has developed a series on teenagers looking at:

  1. Teenage brain development
  2. Communicating with your teenager
  3. Staying connected with your teenager
  4. Setting the boundaries with teenagers
  5. Teenager self-esteem and body image
  6. Teenage relationships, friends and groups
Teenagers Series Part 1: Teenage brain development

In this article:

The teenage brain is quite different to the adult brain as it is under construction in preparation for the transitions from childhood to adulthood. Due to these changes teenage brains are focused on impulsivity, novelty, risk taking and connection to peers.

For teenagers, staying at home with not much to do, away from their friends and with no challenges can be tough and take may impact their wellbeing. This can also put a strain on family relationships in an already difficult situation.

It is not just you – All teenagers go through similar phases including the increasing need for independence, developing identity, testing authority and increased risk taking. All of these phases are linked to developmental changes in the brain as it transforms to state that will help them to be logical, functioning adults.

Brain development, hormones, the struggle for independence and an emerging identity wreak havoc in the mind of the teenager. The issues of how much freedom to give them, how much “attitude” to take from them and how to communicate with your teenager, are the major issues for all parents.

“As I drove into the shopping centre car park, I saw one of the boys from my daughter’s new Year 8 class. I gave him a cheery big wave out the window and turned to my daughter enthusiastically. My daughter was crouched on the floor, crammed beneath the dash. It was then that I realised I had become an embarrassment”, Barry – Parent of Jessica.

Teenage risk taking

Many parents are perplexed as to why their teenagers occasionally behave in an impulsive, irrational, or even dangerous way. It appears that their teenager doesn’t think things through or have consideration the consequences of these behaviours.

There is in fact a biological explanation for most of this. Studies show that adolescents’ brains work differently than adults when they make decisions or solve problems.

During the adolescent years there is a great deal of restructuring going on in the brain, including the frontal lobe and pre-frontal cortex (behind the forehead). This area of the brain controls executive functioning, which includes planning, reasoning, organisation and thinking before we act. This disruption of executive functioning explains why teenagers can be so vulnerable to taking risks with things like drugs, alcohol, driving too fast, risky sexual activity. This section of the brain actually continues to mature and develop throughout adolescence and well into early adulthood. It is unfortunate that this occurs at time when teenagers are starting to want to pull away and be more independent from their families at the same time as being exposed to more risks.

“So right when they are most as at risk and need us the most, they are pushing us away. All the more reason to hold tight and keep persevering with your teenager to keep those lines of communication open and establish.”

Teenage emotions

Emotions also run on overdrive during puberty. This is due to increased hormone levels surging through the emotional sections of the brain (the limbic system). This combined with a lack of impulse control means that teenagers find it difficult to make decisions that allow them to keep their cool.

“So not only are they impulsive they can also be moody.”

Individual differences in maturation rates, temperaments and adult social influences mean that age does not give a firm indication of where a particular child is along their developmental path. At puberty the body grows at a faster rate than at any time since infancy. This growth spurt is often accompanied by increased irritability and conflict as testosterone affects both boys and girls.

Teenagers’ feelings of aggression, fear, and depression can actually be more intense than those of adults, so this coupled with the decrease ability to regulate and manage their emotions can lead to increased emotional difficulties and sometimes mental health issues.

Teenagers and COVID-19

The first challenge is getting you teenagers to see the reasoning for and complying with the guidelines for social distancing. We know that teenagers are more likely to feel invincible, and they will be aware of current reports pointing to young people appearing to be less at risk from the virus. Having discussions about the implications for the whole community are important to bring their focus away from just themselves, to their contribution to the community and in fact country as a whole.

Encourage them to focus on the positive aspects of the current situation and what they might take into the future with the stages of transitioning out of isolation.

Teenagers, more than any other age group, may be struggling with the confines of having to stay at home and not engage in their usual social, creative and sporting activities. These are all outlets for the emotional and social brain of teenager, plus the need for stimulation and challenges at this age. This lack of stimulation in their everyday life may lead them to seek out this out by spending more time online. Stay in touch with your teenager’s online behaviour. Watch out for teenagers spending hours alone in their room, playing video games, watching videos or even engaging in risky or unsafe online behaviours.

With already heightened emotional responses at this age, teenagers will likely be on a roller coaster of emotions during this time. This combined with the frustration of being restricted in the need for independence can create a hot pot for conflict. A great deal of patience and reassurance will be needed on your part to navigate this time. For those teenagers who may already be prone to aggression, anxiety or depression, extra monitoring and vigilance will be needed during this time.

Teenagers whose education has been disrupted, particularly those in their final years of school, may also be experiencing high anxiety about their results and the implications for their future.

“While it is true that one of the main developmental tasks of teenager is to separate from parents during these years, this is also the time they are likely to be vulnerable, so there is still no substitute for the parent-teenager relationship.”

If your connection is consistent, positive and embodies warmth, kindness, love, and stability, your teenager is more likely to flourish. Teenagers who describe their relationship with their parents as warm, kind and consistent are more likely to be involved in positive social contact with other teenagers, struggle less with depression and anxiety, have higher self-esteem and take few risks to their health and wellbeing.

Tips for supporting your teenager during COVID-19
  • Communicate openly and honestly about the current situation in your state or territory.
  • Use this time to initiate conversations and open up the lines of communication. Get to know your teenager at a deeper level. This can be while doing daily tasks or having dinner.
  • Talk with them about how they are feeling. Listen to and acknowledge their feelings. Reassure them that these feelings are understandable during this time and you are there to help and support them.
  • Discuss their challenges and help them to find solutions to issues they have. (If your child is concerned about school, organise to contact and discuss this with your child’s school/teacher to get support).
  • Help them to focus on the positive and look forward the future. Model a positive attitude to the situation ( I am really enjoying being able to talk with your more at the moment).
  • Watch out for teenagers spending hours, alone in their room playing video games, watching videos or even engaging in risky or unsafe online behaviours.
  • Encourage positive, healthy use of technology. Using their devices to stay in touch with friends and family, engage in physical exercise, creating healthy, fun videos.
  • Watch for signs you teenager may be struggling and not talking to you about it.
    Signs may be:
    • Changes in mood that are not usual for your child or are ongoing and not improving. Displaying feelings of hopelessness or great sadness, problems controlling anger or frequent conflicts with family and friends.
    • Changes in behaviour such as staying in the bedroom, lack of interest in engaging with friends online, lack of interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
    • Difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep. Staying asleep for extended periods of time, more than previously
    • Problems with memory, thinking or concentration.
    • A lack of interest in personal appearance or hygiene. (that are not just related to social isolation at home).
    • Increases in risky or reckless behaviours.
    These signs were adapted from Headspace.

If you or your children are struggling:
Kids can call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or Youth Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or you can contact your child’s GP. If you are struggling, call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

The Fathering Channel – Teenagers Series
This series has been designed to give an insight into the workings of the teenage brain and some tips to help to navigate parenting your teenager. These learnings are based on our research and years of experience supporting fathers and father-figures. But the fact is, everyone’s situation is different, so feel free to be creative, and adapt our wisdom to suit your circumstances.
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