COVID-19 lockdowns may be easing, but the world we live in has changed for good. Social distancing will be with us for a while, and many parents find themselves still working from home and schooling their teenage children. Understanding what’s happening in a teen’s brain is a must-have for busy adults who need to navigate this brave new world.
The Teenage Brain: What’s Going On?
There are three things to know about the teenage brain and some important differences between teen girls’ and boys’ brains.
First, a teen’s emotional limbic brain is not yet fully connected to the center of rational thought and good judgment, the prefrontal cortex. Teen brains are impulsive and struggle to call on the prefrontal cortex when situations are stressful or don’t make sense. For moms and dads, this means teens need careful oversight, and parents need to be exceptionally skilled in how this oversight is managed. It’s too easy to get into confrontations with your teen, and this is not helpful.
Second, the teenage brain is in a state of completely rewiring itself, thanks to a surge of reproductive hormones. As a parent, you have to understand—and accept—that you are literally dealing with a new person. You need to expect the unexpected.
Third, a teen’s brain is preparing for adulthood, which creates a primal need to break free from family members and bond with peer groups instead. The COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing are getting in the way of the very things that millions of years of evolution have primed your teen to do. As a parent, you need to support your son or daughter in this natural development as best you can, lockdown or not.
Inside a Teen Girl’s Brain: Relationships, Social Sensitivities, and Volatility
Who are you going to get today? In teenage girls, hormones call the shots, as estrogen and progesterone appear in waves that peak and decline at different rates during a girl’s monthly menstrual cycle.
What comes from this new flood of neurochemicals?
Relationships take priority.
Your daughter’s relationships with peers become incredibly important. So does being liked and feeling socially connected. Talking is soothing to a teen girl’s nervous system, and teenage girls in lockdown will spend hours each day staying in contact with friends on social media. As a parent, you might negotiate boundaries (such as no screens at mealtime), but do not remove this access altogether.
Conflict becomes intolerable.
Increasing estrogen, and the subsequent activation of the bonding hormone oxytocin, means that teenage girls are more likely to dislike relationship conflicts. As their social sensitivities skyrocket, the fear of losing relationships becomes very stressful for a teen girl’s brain. As parents, it’s important to understand that your daughter’s relationship ups and downs feel more dramatic and dangerous than you can possibly imagine.
Mood swings become the norm.
How your teenage daughter relates to people in her life will change radically depending on where she is in her monthly menstrual cycle. A comment that invokes laughter and a witty reply early in her cycle—when her estrogen levels have sharpened her brain and verbal fluency—might be taken as a damning insult in the second part of her cycle when estrogen levels drop. Expect volatility, and don’t take anything personally.
Inside a Teen Boy’s Brain: Sex, Turfing, and Questioning Authority
What’s going on in the brains of teenage boys? A lot.
Sex, sex, and more sex.
Testosterone arrives like a tidal wave for the teen boy brain; as it does, his brain’s sex circuits will grow twice as large as a girl’s. Images of female body parts will flash through his visual cortex, and he won’t be able to control it. This can be confusing and frightening for boys, but also exciting. It’s good to talk about it. As a father, you might share how this period was for you. Normalize your teen’s feelings, then express how important it is to respect young women.
The need for personal space escalates.
As vasopressin, another male hormone, increases, so will your teen’s turfing behaviors. Your son may start to perceive the world as hostile, whether it is or not. He may become more territorial about his room and demand that everyone stay away. During COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s even more important to allow your teen to feel that he has his own place in the home.
During a boy’s teenage years, a teen’s position in the pecking order begins to really matter. Alpha boys (with higher testosterone levels) will want to establish their place at the top. Even non-alpha boys are likely to care about not being at the bottom of the hierarchy. As the pecking order gets figured out, bullying tends to flare. This can be one of the hardest times for boys; for boys who are not inclined to fight, it can feel scary and difficult. For some of the more sensitive souls, lockdowns might even be a blessing.
No matter where your teen “ranks” among his peers, challenging authority becomes an impulsive need. But on lockdown, your teen will have limited outlets. Your teen might refuse to help with household chores, or he might go as far as refusing to stay indoors. As a parent, expect and enable productive challenges to occur.
Four Brain-Friendly ‘Cs’ to Help Your Teen
As your teen’s brain and body swirl with neurochemicals and hormones—and social distancing and lockdowns ramp up stress—what can you do to help? These four brain-friendly “Cs” offer a good deal of support:
Calm: Quiet the emotional brainfirst; otherwise, nothing new can happen.
In teens, the emotional brain reigns as king or queen. Unfortunately, as a parent, you’ll become the recipient of this teenage angst. The rule of thumb here is to ask:
How do I need to adjust my parenting and change how I usually react?
Teen brains need habits and routines to calm them. Create simple, daily routines—and try to stick to them as much as possible. Include plenty of time for sleep. Teenagers need at least 10 hours, as the brain’s sleep circuits are being reset. Ask your teen to help figure out routines that work for the whole family. How you talk about creating family routines is really important. This leads us to the second “C,” control.
Control: Allow your teen to take charge as much as possible.
As a parent, you are in charge because the teen brain is simply not ready. But you must give away as much control as you safely can. A key rule of thumb is to ask your teen questions instead of telling him or her what to do. For example, you might ask:
What form of exercise is best for you?
Help me understand how I can help you?
So you don’t like XYZ. What do you recommend we do?
Let your teen design the family systems. Let teens feel in charge. They are searching for their identity.
Connect: Encourage your teen to foster relationships, especially with peers.
Teens need to be building their peer relationships. As parents, we need to enable them to do this without feeling hurt as they pull away. Three rules of thumb to follow are:
Don’t ban screens. Instead, work with your teen to set boundaries. Talk with your teen about online safety and make sure the necessary precautions are in place.
Offer outlets. Teenagers may be breaking away from their parents, but there may be other family members they can talk to. Are there uncles, aunts, cousins, or trusted adult friends—anyone who’s not mom or dad—who can step in?
Research whom to call for help. Don’t be afraid to hold an intervention if you are worried. Talk privately to psychologists beforehand and come up with an approach. In a stressful lockdown environment, a helpline might be the very thing you or your teen need.
Create: Inspire your teen to come up with new ideas and activities.
The teen brain is designed to experiment, particularly as young adults go out into the world. The prefrontal cortex loves to be creative, so give it space to play. During the coronavirus lockdown, help come up with ways for your teen to be creative. If your teen protests, make it look as though they are helping you. A good rule of thumb to follow is:
Create a challenge—then reward your teen fast.
Though teen brains and lockdowns can be a stressful combination, there is a silver lining: we’re getting more time with our kids, and our help and encouragement will go a long way in supporting them as they become young adults. Sure, you may not get a “thank you” as you navigate the stormy seas of teenagerhood, but you will be making more of a positive difference than you know. Keep calm and carry on!
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