Decoding the Adolescent Brain, and why I love working with Teens (and their parents!)

teen brain.PNG

You may have heard the saying that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but I’m here to offer the third and final declaration of this adage – teens are from Pluto. Or at least it can feel this way, as parents tell me time and time again - the happy go lucky child they once knew, transformed into a person they no longer know how to interact with. A child that once felt so close now seems a solar system away.   

In my career as a child and adolescent therapist, I have worked with hundreds of teens and have come to appreciate both the challenges and joys associated with this stage of development. Teens invariably bring fresh energy and a unique perspective, and I’ve come to learn that understanding them, the changes in their brain, and the developmental tasks they have to go through, has gone a long way in helping me provide support to young people and their caregivers.

While I’ve been told that it can be a challenge for parents to get teens to *come* to therapy, one thing that has struck me is how much teens revel in feeling seen, heard, and supported by someone who, by virtue of being a neutral third party, will be less impacted by the intensity of the emotions they experience. Indeed, a central tenant of adolescence is that the intensity of uncomfortable emotions (sadness, anger) can be very intense. At the same time, what we know of affective states is that they are quite literally contagious. When parents see their teens struggle emotionally, often parents themselves become overwhelmed with worry, and they require some support to parent in the most helpful way.

And of COURSE parents would be worried about their teenagers! In his book, “Brainstorm”, child psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel highlights some pretty frightening truths – while 12-24 makes up the most physically resilient age group, this is also the highest population with avoidable causes of serious injury or worse. With the onset of risk-taking behaviour, adolescence is a period in which young people can alter the course of their lives in irreversible ways. Okay.. now that I’ve scared you, there is good news! And here it is: while adolescents may never tell you that they want your help, I promise – with unequivocal conviction – that they absolutely do. That’s right. YOU, as a parent, absolutely have the power to positively influence your teen to make good decisions to make it through this tumultuous period of life.

Therapy with teens:

The cornerstone of my work with adolescents lies in allowing teens to have a safe and confidential place to explore their thoughts and feelings, while incorporating their parents into the work we do together. Did you know that in Ontario, you can see a health care practitioner without your parents’ consent at the age of twelve? (twelve!). Although the law stipulates that young people can seek out their own mental health treatment, best practices maintain that young people are treated in the context they exist in, and this means the family system is a significant piece of the puzzle.

Family therapy with adolescents doesn’t have to include teens and their parents in the same room. Often, even teens who refuse to have a joint session with their parents will almost always give me permission to lead a “parent education session”, where we don’t talk about the content of the sessions with teens, but instead work with parents to help them understand what is going on for adolescents and how to best support them.

Parent psychoeducation:

So! How can caregivers best support their kids, you ask? An important starting point is to understand the central tenants of this stage of development, which I’ve outlined below (and taken from Dr. Dan Sigel’s book, “Brainstorm: the Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain”):

Teens have a lower dopamine baseline –

  • Dopamine is the neuro-transmitter responsible for the feeling of pleasure. In adolescence, teens start to require more novel experiences in order to raise dopamine levels, and this would explain why teens seem to feel bored easily and why they take more risks. While seemingly scary, this hormonal change is  necessary to ensuring that young people don’t stay in the comfy-cozy-confines of their familial homes forever, and is a necessary precursor to individuation and independence.

Attachment to peers:

  • I often hear concern from caregivers about the company that their kids keep. These associations make sense, though, as young people struggle to figure out who they are and try to find a place where they belong in the world. Unfortunately this can land them in relationships with peers who may be less than ideal.

  • The key here is to understand an adolescent’s associations with their peers, favorable or otherwise, as serving a crucial developmental function. I can’t stress this enough – when young people need certain shoes, clothes, or any other social status symbol, it quite literally is programmed into their brains that if they don’t belong to a “pack”,  their survival is on the line as a matter of life and death.

  • Here is the bottom line: we need safe and trusting attachment relationships until the day we die. What changes in adolescence is who the attachment is focused on. The switch from parents to peers is a necessary genetically programmed function that, again, helps ensure that kids can someday go out into the world and be independent.

  • When kids associate with undesirable peers, we must understand that they are doing the very best they can to fit in. Parents must respect the yearning that adolescents have to belong, even if they don’t approve of their friends (or buy the shoes, for that matter).

Intense Emotions:

  • During this stage of development, the prefrontal cortex (the area in the brain responsible for decision making, understanding risk and reward, planning and organizing) is developing rapidly until the age of 25 (25!). At the same time, the limbic area – the part of the brain that triggers emotions, especially emotions related to danger, is well developed and working over-time. This means that young people can experience intense emotions without the ability to fully understand and process them.

  • That’s where parents come in - I recruit parents to be their children’s “emotional coaches”. Parents often tell me that they feel like they have “no influence” or “have lost all control”, but the truth is that learning about how to teach their adolescents to manage intense feelings and helping their adolescents co-regulate has been the single most influential piece of work I’ve done that has positively influenced teens.

  • That’s right - parent work can have a tremendous impact on the well-being of a teen who is struggling. While a therapist will see a child for an hour a week, parents see their kids on a regular basis, and parents will always be more influential to their kids than a therapist will ever be.

Anger, Anger, Everywhere:

  • Lastly, and perhaps my favorite bit of research regarding adolescents: Adolescents are significantly more likely than adults to perceive ANGER in the expression of a person (read: parent) who is portraying a neutral expression.

  • That means that young people are using incorrect data (i.e. perceiving anger where there is none) to inform their relationship with the world around them. This may account for young people becoming emotionally activated by parents who ask as benign a question as – “how was your day?”.

  • What’s helpful here is to understand that if a teen is reacting in a way that is bizarre, this can be explained by changes in the brain, and caregivers can react to these outbursts in planned and purposeful ways, discussed at lengths in parent-sessions.

So there you have it! All these factors add up to ensure one thing - parenting a teen is by no means easy. However, armed with the understanding of the changing adolescent brain and the support of a therapist, parents have the fundamental ability to help their teens grow, help “coach” them emotionally, flourish, and succeed.

I am committed to working with teens individually and working with parents to ensure that they are providing skilled support during this difficult time. And if you need some hope about the trajectory of your relationship with your teen, I will leave you with this Mark Twain quote:

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

If you are interested in learning more, please don’t hesitate to contact me: info@jennsophieshields.com.