Most of the info comes from the book “Your teenager is not crazy: understanding your teen’s brain to become a better parent” by Jerusha and Jeremy Clark and “INSPIRE TO REWIRE” (Psychology Today Website) by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel.
I will endevour to summarise it and how it has helped us in understanding our precious firstborn. Whenever we meet people and they find out that we have 6 boys their response is often “Wow, good luck when they are all teenagers”. To be honest, we had never given it much thought until our eldest hit 11 and changed from an innocent boy to a mini man in the space of about 6 months. We were all propelled into the realities of adolescence and we were not prepared.
To give a background, our delightful number one is highly creative, tender hearted and slightly (!) scattered. We adore him in every way and are constantly amazed and inspired by his creative abilities, however, it has been a challenge in training him for the everyday. To gain his focus and to get him to remember things was making the usually patient me think I was going crazy. We had him formally assessed which revealed he was extremely gifted in spatial/visual processing. This, however, coupled with lower than average working memory meant getting his ‘full attention is near impossible if anything visual that has taken his focus’. So learning at school has been interesting for this sweet boy! We were making foreword gains until……. puberty.
It was then, at the most perfect time, this wonderful bit of insight landed in my lap. And I truly believe if most parents knew exactly what is happening in their teens brain, their whole perspective and understanding will change toward their teen. Instead of holding on for dear life and surviving these years, we can approach it with compassion and reassurance….. drawing alongside them.
So what am I referring to? Basically in the years from about 11 in girls, and 12 in boys the brain starts “pruning” (called specialisation) from the back to the front. Basically the childhood brain is like a sponge, absorbing almost everything and anything. However as the brain undergoes the change into what will eventually be the adult, fully formed brain, some of these pathways will be pruned and/or specialized. It is an amazing process similar to streamlining. Those pathways no longer needed, will be shed and those that are needed and are being used frequently will be kept, strengthened and insulated or hardwired (called myelination). “Use it or lose it” has been used to describe this process. As Dr Siegel explains …..those circuits that are actively engaged may remain but those underutilised may be subject to systematic destruction. And so for an adolescent, this means that if you want to learn a foreign language well, play a musical instrument, or be proficient at a sport, engaging in those activities before and during adolescence would be a good idea. We move from open potential in childhood to specialisation during and following adolescence.
It is such a significant time and I would propose that in this time of specialisation we need to be careful/aware what their brains are exposed to. My struggle is, and I know it is the same for many mothers of teenage boys is limiting the time spent gaming, particularly violent games. If their brains are being exposed to excessive amounts, it can become hardwired into their thinking. If we would allow, our sweet teen #1 would become an all-out gamer, as it really appeals to his visual/spatial gifting. Balance is the key in this time, because balanced activities will lead to a balanced brain. The stakes are so much higher in this time of specialisation (I am preaching to myself here!).
With all these dramatic changes happening, it’s no wonder they can feel like their brains are fried, because it’s not that far from the truth. Parts of the brain can develop unevenly too, in fits and starts so if you find your teen’s behaiviour is erratic, it is often due to the brain development taking place. It’s important for them (and us) to understand that they are not crazy, and compassion is the key. It’s so easy to want to shrink back in this time and resurface on the other side, but they need us more than ever to let them know that they are normal, that they are doing well and are going to be ok. When we started to communicate this to Jem, we really saw him relax into the changes and start to open up to us. It is such a precious time of development, so I’d say it’s more important than ever to be involved as a coach on the sidelines, relinquishing the role as the one in control, as in their childhood.
It also makes sense that much of our identity is formed in this time too. What our high school peers think of us (cool, smart, sporty, nerdy) often carries over into our adulthood. There couldn’t be a more important time to keep reminding them of their strengths and internal identity. We often try to remind Jem that he is more than what his peers think of him in these 6 years. That he has a future and plan for his life that is so much more than what he is experiencing now. We need to be diligent in constantly reminding him of his strengths, as peers can be so good at honing in on weaknesses. Easier to say than do when all I want to do is remind him to pick up after himself (again!) and be considerate towards his siblings, who so desparately want his attention.
The teen years is also a time when the social part of the brain is undergoing rapid growth which is why they are suddenly so excruciatingly aware of their peers. It is easy to want to quash this and keep them close (guilty here) but it is part of the natural process in moving toward independence. Boundaries are definitely important and so is having a say in their influences. The old saying of “show me your friends and I will show you who you will become” has particular meaning in the teens, considering what is happening in their brains. We are really trying to talk to Jem about his choices in friends, and what makes a good friend. Not easy when all they want is to be liked. I have known families to go to the extent of moving classes or even schools because of their influences. I thought this was quite extreme until I discovered the importance of this time and their social development coupled with the “specialisation” happening.
For boys, during the age of 10 and 20, the amount of testosterone is 30 times that of the amount in childhood. The result of this is: shorter attention spans (Lord give me strength!), increased risk taking, anger outbursts and higher sex drives. Basically these darling boys need to know what they are feeling is normal, and it will not be like this forever. They need safe spaces to take risks, to be adventurous, to test boundaries and have information presented to them in the fewest words possible. When they lash out and/or overreact, it is often beyond their control so we have to fight not to take it personally. This is particularly the case because their pre-frontal cortex (their reasoning/common sense part of the brain) at the front, behind their foreheads, is the last area to be pruned and specialised……. so coupled with increased testosterone, no wonder their decision making can seem irresponsible and irrational! It’s important to remember their decision making is controlled by the opposite part of the brain than us rational adults (refer to pic below)
Sounds like a nightmare? Well yes I thought that too…… and we have 6 of these to get through the teen years! But when you consider why, it does make sense. This is often a time, in many cultures, where the boys are trained to be men. To hunt, protect, provide and to prepare for possible battle. It was often a time of ‘rites of passage’, and bravery was required. However, society is very different now……. safety driven, litigious and busier……. our boys are often not given opportunities to test their limits and take risks. This explains why they are often attracted to battle-like games. Now, forgive me if what I am saying is stereotyping the male gender. There are of course, many variables to the norm and I am sure that the level of testosterone can vary between teens. Each person is so very unique, despite their gender. Our family represents the full gamut of males. We have gentle ones, creative ones, active sporty ones and ones that simply want to perform. But I have found, no matter what their personality and make-up, they are all showing signs of this increase in testosterone and risk taking. It has surprised us how our, normally very cautious and reserved boy, is now a risk-taker and attracted to things that scare him a bit. The level of extremes may be different but signs of this transition in their brains are definitely there. So for all parents of teen boys, hang in there!! They are normal and where you can, give them the opportunity to take some risks. We have found this particularly tricky in our busy lives, still in the thick of toddlers and babies, to provide our two older boys (now 12 and 13) with these opportunities. Thankfully, we have found a fantastic youth leader who loves to provide this for our boys. He is in his mid 20’s (so has a fully developed brain!) but is still in touch with his inner teen, so we feel very blessed to have found this positive role model for our boys. He gets up to all sorts of adventurous antics with them and I have been surprised that this is exactly what they have needed. A mystery to my very female adult brain!! Seriously, who would want to go exploring in the dark and cold, and chase horses? Lol! Those who don’t have someone like this in there boys’ lives, sometimes just doing some ‘risky’ adventures as a family can help. Sport, of course, is great too. Anything that that allows them to push the boundaries as opposed to seeking adventure in unhealthy places.
Now for the girls. We have a few years to get ready for this as our one girl is only 3. Growing up in a household of males, we are really going to have to be intentional about supporting her through adolescence. Again there are variations to the norm, but typically this is what is going on in a teen girl’s brain. Girls often process more through emotion. We are already finding this with Vera! She has been a fascinating creature to watch in this landscape of boys. She seems to have developed a strength, boldness and bravery from chasing after (and bossing around) her brothers. However, every response seems to be processed more emotionally. Her heart literally seems to get hurt when someone hasn’t responded well to her relationally (not unlike her mum!). She also seems to take longer to calm her emotions. When I have talked with mums of teen girls about this, they pretty much say “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!!” In an average teen girl’s brain, from the age of 11, there is an increased level of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These hormones continue to be released in surges throughout the teens. In times of stress, when cortisol is released, the progesterone reacts adversely with cortisol and the emotions increase. So they literally cannot calm themselves down. Jerusha and Jeremy Clark offer two insights that really stood out to me. An emotional response usually follows an arc of approximately 90 seconds (this is the same with boys). So in this time do not enter in. Do not react. Do not minimalise. Do not offer advice. Take a breath and allow a moment (or more) before pursuing the discussion. In an adult brain, in times of particular stress, to counteract the cortisol, a hormone called THP is released and a sense of relative calm resumes. However, in an adolescent brain when cortisol is released, THP has the inverse affect and actually increases the feeling of stress. A 30 minute time frame is suggested to allow the brain to process the cortisol in order to think and respond in a more rational manner. So some time out, not in a punishment type way, is often exactly what is needed. It could be over the most insignificant thing, but it is literally the end of the world to her…… so just try to empathise with her and give her brain time to process and adjust. Why are girl’s going through these changes? Considering most of these hormones are linked to bonding, relationship and fertility…..it is nature’s way of preparing them for motherhood. They may not pursue motherhood later in life, but this is nature’s way are preparing them to nuture. Pretty amazing hey? Yet it is a challenge when they are navigating so many relationships at school, whilst also trying to focus on studies. For girls in particular, but boys as well, it is important to facilitate an environment of fewer stressors considering the stressful reaction that can be triggered in their rapidly developing brains. Due to these lovely girlie hormones, girl’s can be more vulnerable to social stressors, which is why they are twice as prone to depression in the teen years. An empathetic and accessible caregiver is just what is needed. Girls need to be assured that they are strong, capable and they are so much more than what is going on relationally for them right now.
Information overload? I like a good summary for my full brain, so these are the things to remember for the teen years……..
– Compassion! Often your teen doesn’t know why they are responding the way they are so just reassure them that they are normal and massive changes are taking place.
-Boys are flooded with testosterone! Provide safe spaces/activities to test the boundaries.
-Girls are also flooded with hormone, the emotional/relational kind. Empathise and do not minimalise.
-Expose them to healthy and varied activities. What they are doing now will likely stick with them for life.
-Release them socially towards independence but make sure their peers will influence them for the better.
-Patience! And remind yourself that who they are now and how they are reacting, is not who they are becoming. They are a work in process. A girl’s brain is often not mature until age 23 and boys, age 24 (and sometimes age 27!!)
-Sleep! With all these changes taking place it takes a teen longer to fall asleep but they need more of it (at least 9 hours). So let them catch up where they can……they are not being lazy!
Above all, try to enjoy this stage….. with them. I am speaking to myself here as I have MANY years ahead. My mum often said she enjoyed the teen years with us more than any other stage. I am pretty sure that’s because she facilitated an open, communicative relationship with us. It definitely was NOT because we were perfect teens.
So parents with teens, good luck…… God-speed and enjoy!! And also, considering we are only in the beginning of this teen journey, those who have more experience please feel free to share advice and resources…… and we can share the love around!
Love, Greta….. The Butcher’s Wife ????