I recently gave a talk to parents of teenagers. As I was describing the changes that take place in the teenage brain, it suddenly occurred to me that if you didn’t know I was talking about a teenager, you might think I was describing an entirely different species! One moment you’re having a perfectly pleasant conversation and the next moment they are in tears, telling you you’re the worst parent in the world, before retreating to their bedroom for hours, if not days! What it boils down to is a war between logic and emotion – and in the teenage brain, the odds are stacked against logic. Here is why.
There are two parts of the brain that have a significant influence on how we behave.
The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop. Scientists believe it is only fully developed by the age of 30. An underdeveloped prefrontal cortex makes it impossible for teenagers to access logic and reason in the same way adults can. They simply do not have the software. That said, it is constantly developing – a bit like your phone or computer goes through software updates – the teenage brain periodically updates its software. With each update comes an increased capacity for emotional regulation. While the prefrontal cortex undergoes these changes, the teenager becomes reliant on the amygdala for decision-making. Now you can imagine that when you have a raw, emotional, irrational and instinctive part of your brain controlling behaviour, teenagers can behave in ways that are illogical or irrational.
What this translates into is that the teenage brain hard wires them to be more prone to addiction, risky decision making, being overly emotional, misinterpreting what others have said, feeling misunderstood, acting out, and the list goes on. As they get older, teenagers generally get better at utilizing the prefrontal cortex, and rely less on the amygdala. Their behaviour starts to evolve, and they get better at using logic and reason. A 17 year old will be much better at regulating their emotions and holding a rational conversation than a 13 year old. An older teenager might also be very good at utilizing the prefrontal cortex and remain calm and rational, but because it is developing, they will tend to resort back to the amygdala in the heat of the moment. Even the most calm and logical teenagers have moments where they lose control or feel completely overwhelmed.
So what is a parent to do? Learn to speak to the amygdala. I have seen countless arguments unfold when parents try to use their logical prefrontal cortex to talk to the illogical amygdala of their teenager. This tends to leave teenagers feeling misunderstood, frustrated, unheard and unsupported, which makes them even more irrational. It’s a type of vicious circle that is so easy to get stuck in. Imagine your teenager speaks French and you are trying to communicate with them in Greek. Both of you are going to come away frustrated. As a parent, you have to learn a new language if you are going to get through to your teen. It starts with these two words:
Since the amygdala makes your teenager more inclined to experience emotions more intensely that we do as adults, they can often come across as “overly emotional”. Their response seems over the top for the given situation. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex of the adults kicks in, and you immediately jump in to try and help them see logic, because surely that will make them feel better. Instead they explode, or withdraw, and the conversation is over. Eventually they may stop talking to you, because in it’s raw activated state the amygdala really has no interest in talking to the prefrontal cortex. As the parent, the best thing you can do when your teen opens up is to recognize how real their emotions are to them, and that they are already feeling overwhelmed and irrational as it is. This is not the time for problem solving. If you can put aside your logic and reason for a moment, and be curious about where they are at, and how they are feeling, and how they got there, you are more likely to get them to tell you more. Their raw emotions become less potent and toxic the more they are able to talk about them and let them out. The teenage brain is remarkable in how it is able to make sense of and integrate difficult experiences given the right ingredients.
Empathy doesn’t come after curiosity. It is an integral part. If you are curious but lack empathy, your teenager will shut down. Empathy is the foundation upon which a relationship is built in therapy. If a teenager doesn’t feel that I am empathic toward what they are going through, they won’t give me anything. It is not too dissimilar for parents. Teenagers can smell empathy – or the lack thereof. The amygdala and it’s raw emotions respond well to empathy – those emotions simply need to feel understood and heard before they can be processed and stored away. If there is no empathy, the emotions escalate and get bigger in a desperate attempt to express themselves. Empathy tells the raw, instinctive amygdala that it is safe to feel all of the intensity that is already so uncomfortable for the teenager. And the safer they feel, the more they express, the quicker the problem resolves.
Reflecting back what you see is a powerful way of communicating empathy and curiosity. Practically translated, curious empathy might sound like "I can see you are having a hard time with this, can you tell me more?" Or "you look like you are upset, help me understand what you are going through?" This often disarms the amygdala and allows the young person to express process their emotions, which then enables them to get back to the logical prefrontal cortex way of thinking.
That is not to say that you should never encourage your teenager to be logical. It is rather paradoxical in that if you want them to engage the prefrontal cortex, you first have to deactivate the alarm of the amygdala. This is what empathy and curiosity does. Allows the fire alarm in their brains to be heard so that it can be deactivated, and they can engage their own problem solving abilities. The more parents are able to create a safe and empathic space for the amygdala, the more the prefrontal cortex develops the skills it needs.
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