Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Adolescent Brain – What All Teens Need to Know

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Adolescents have dynamic, open, hungry minds. They are creative, brave and curious. It has to be this way. The only way to learn many of the skills they will need to be strong, healthy adults will be to stretch beyond what they’ve always known and to experiment with the world and their place in it. 

The adolescent brain is wired to drive them through this transition, but there will be a few hairpin curves along the way. Skilful drivers are not born from straight roads. 

There will be good days, great days and dreadful days. Some days will be crazy bad. You will come to appreciate new things – their grown-up conversation, their edgy sense of humour, any time they want to be close, and the sound of nobody arguing with you. And that smile of theirs! When it’s for you, it will knock you out every time.

Adolescence is something they have to do on their own. We can guide them, but we can’t do it for them. This is their time for growth and learning, but there is something powerful we can do to help them along the way. We can give them the information they need to light their way forward.

Most of their behaviour, even the most baffling, frustrating, infuriating parts of it, can be explained by the changes that are taking place in their brains. This can feel as confusing for them as it does to us. It doesn’t mean they can sit back and blame their brains for their troublesome behaviour. They need to manage these changes in a healthy, adaptive way, but to do this they need information. When they have the information, they expand their capacity to respond to the world in ways that will help them thrive.

They need to know that their big feelings (the good and the bad) have a really good reason for being there. They need to understand why they think the way they do and why they make decisions they make, for better or for worse. They need to understand why they have such an immense draw to their peers and why the heartache when those relationships feel fragile. Most of all they need to know that their struggles are normal and that it was like that for us too (think back, it was). They need to know that we see the massive potential that is coming to life inside them, and they need to know that we’ve got their back.

Information is power, and with the right information, adolescents will have an expanded capacity to see the changes they are going through as positive and dynamic, and all part of getting ready to be healthy, strong, capable adults.

Having the information doesn’t mean things won’t get messy – things will get really messy. What it means is that they will have the capacity to navigate around the mess. Think of it like switching on a light in a darkened room. The obstacles will still be there – right in the middle of where they need to walk, but when they can see what’s happening they will have a better chance of navigating around those obstacles, rather than falling over them.

Our teens are amazing. Their brains are on fire – powerful, creative, insightful. Here’s what they need to know.

The Adolescent Brain – What They Need to Know.

  1. Your brain is changing. But you have enormous capacity to influence those changes.

    What your brain is doing.

    You’re transitioning into adulthood. There’s no hurry to do this – you’ll have plenty of time. Your adult brain won’t be fully developed until you’re about 24. In the meantime, it’s your time to learn, experience and experiment with the world and your place in it. Your brain is ready for this. It has been supercharged with about a billion new neurons (neurons are what brain cells call themselves to sound intelligent) to support you to do everything you need to do. The brain cells you use will strengthen. The ones you don’t will wither away. Don’t worry about the withering. This is important and normal. Your brain doesn’t need every one of your billion new neurons. Letting go of the neurons you don’t need will make space and energy available to strengthen the ones that you do.

    How to make it work for you.

    Your brain is developing into a more efficient, more powerful machine – but it needs you to guide it. To strengthen and grow your brain, spend time doing things you want to be great at. Every experience will change your brain. When you do something, the corresponding neurons will fire up and that part of the brain will strengthen. The skills you learn during adolescence will be richer and more enduring than anything you learn at any other time of your life. If you play music or sport, do drama, paint, cook, learn a language, these are the connections that will get stronger. Spend too much time on the couch though, and there will be brain cells planning their goodbyes and wishing you cared about them more. Bums love couches. Brains aren’t so keen. 

  2. Your brain is like a high-performance sports car but your brakes aren’t ready yet.

    What your brain is doing.

    Your brain will wire and strengthen from the back to the front. One of the first parts of the brain to develop is the amygdala, which is involved in instinctive, impulsive, emotional, aggressive reactions. It’s great for keeping you alive if there’s trouble, but not always great when it comes to making balanced decisions. To make good decisions, the front of the brain needs to be involved. This is the pre-frontal cortex and it is the ‘calm down’, sensible, logical part of the brain that is able to consider consequences and put the brakes on emotion, behaviour or decisions that might cause trouble. Here’s the rub: Because your pre-frontal cortex won’t be fully developed until you’re 24, your decisions, problem-solving and the way you respond to people will be heavily influenced by the amygdala. The adolescent brain is often compared to a high-performance sports car – fast, powerful, and keen to go hard on the bends – but without the brakes.

    How to make it work for you.

    You’re ready to experiment with the world in new and exciting ways but because your brain is still fine-tuning its ability to read situations and respond well, things won’t always end the way you think they will. Sometimes taking risks is brave and brilliant. Sometimes it’s not. Take a step back and look at the big picture, before you take a leap. Your brain will be telling you to go for it, but be alive to that voice inside you that might be telling you otherwise. That’s your intuition. It’s the collection of memories, wisdom and experiences that are outside of your awareness. Tap into it and let it work with the courage, creativity and adventurous spirit that is expanding in you.

  3. Hello hormones! (But your brain will take time to adjust.)

    What your brain is doing.

    You’ve probably heard a lot of people blaming hormones for the things adolescents do that aren’t so loveable. (It’s okay, nobody is meant to be lovable all the time – if we were, we all would have been born as cake.) It’s not so much your hormones that cause trouble but the way your brain reacts to them. The main sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone) are in you during childhood but when puberty arrives, the levels of these hormones increase  to adult levels. What’s new is the jarring that comes when your brain is introduced to these hormones.

    For girls, the hormones that fluctuate are estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are linked to the brain chemicals that control mood. Say hello to big feelings – and know that they are normal, healthy and completely okay – and that it won’t always be like this.

    For boys, testosterone and the amygdala get friendly. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is involved in the fight or flight response. You might feel angry and fearful more often and more intensely than you have before. There is nothing wrong with feeling these feelings, but it’s important to manage what you do with them.

    How to make it work for you.

    For both boys and girls, the sex hormones get busy in the limbic system. This is the emotional hub of the brain. You might find that you tend to be volatile and that you crave experiences that make you feel deeply. Listening to sad music or watching an intense movie are ways to feed the craving safely.

    Big feelings will make it really easy to ruin relationships and do damage that you never intended. They can also drive you to do great things. Anger, sadness, and restlessness can drive incredible courage and change. Some of the most important things in history have happened because people your age were angry enough to change the way things were done. Big feelings won’t always be bad ones. You’ll also have times of intense joy and excitement. This will drive connection and enthusiasm and will help you find your passion. Hold on to this. It’s what beautiful lives are made from.

  4. Your brain is like an open window. Expose it to good and it will thrive. Expose it to bad and that window will slam shut.

    What your brain is doing.

    With so many neurons firing, your brain will be heavily influenced by whatever you expose it to, good or bad. This makes your brain extremely vulnerable to stress and addiction. Think of your not-yet-developed brain like a partially built house. Exposure to bad weather will devastate a house that is still waiting for its roof, but a fully built one will come through the same storm undamaged.

    How to make it work for you.

    If you want to be technical about it, your brain is a few pounds of gooey jelly. What makes it amazing is you – what you expose it to, what you say yes to, and of course, what you say no to. Be choosy with your experiences. They could potentially change your brain in ways that last well beyond the moment.

  5. So let’s talk about addiction, because you’re more vulnerable than ever.

    What your brain is doing.

    Dopamine is one of the brain’s feel-good chemicals and it is released when you get something you want or when you think about getting something you want. The release makes you want the thing again, which is great if it’s something healthy, like eating, connecting socially, falling in love, or trying new or challenging things. The everyday level of dopamine in your brain is lower than that of an adult, which can make you feel a bit flat – but – when you get something you want, your brain releases more dopamine than would be released in an adult. 

    You can see how this works. You have less dopamine to start with but when you get a rush of it, it just feels so good. The chase for that feel-good can drive you to keep doing things that aren’t so healthy – drugs, drinking, gambling.  Eventually, it can lead to addiction. Healthy things can also become addictive to the point that they are bad for you, such as exercise, social media or gaming. 

    How to make it work for you.

    Be alive to the pull to keep doing something that isn’t good for you. That’s your dopamine pushing you around. Your developing brain is particularly vulnerable – strong, capable, smart, creative – and vulnerable. With your prefrontal cortex still under construction, you’ll need to work harder to control the impulse to do something that might not end well. Some not-so-risky ways to get a dopamine high are listening to music, exercising, trying something new or challenging. You’re being driven by a brain that is encouraging you to be brave and fearless. Be brave and fearless, but be smart about it. 

  6. You might want to push against the norm or take risks. (Oh you rebel you!)

    What your brain is doing.

    At this stage of your life, you are beautifully open to new experiences and your courage is at an all time high. It’s very likely that you’ll crave novelty, adventure, and challenge. In the long run, this will broaden your capabilities and enrich your experience of adulthood. In the short-term, it might come with risk, persuading you towards risky, new behaviours such as sex (including sexting), drugs, drinking, lying about where you are. It can also drive you towards strong, healthy behaviours, such as any competitive activity, travel, activism, sports, performing. One of your jobs is to decide between the good risks and the bad risks, but to an adolescent brain they can look the same. This is because the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is able to think about consequences and calm an overly emotional reaction, isn’t fully able to be involved the decision. You’ll be more likely to overestimate the potential positives of a situation and underestimate the potential negatives.

    How to make it work for you.

    The drive to experiment and try out new things is an important one. There are a lot of things that are important for you to experience along the way to adulthood, and you don’t want an overly cautious brain talking you out of the things that will be good for you. Just be aware that because something feels like it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean it always is. You’ll sometimes feel invincible and you’ll be less likely to shy away from things that could end badly. You’ll also be less likely to learn from it. You have a lot of control over your brain, but you’ll need to switch this on. Slow down your decisions and be deliberate about considering the good and the bad – and talk to the adults who care about you. They’ve been where you are before, and they’ve made the mistakes to prove it. Being a rebel sounds cool – but don’t forget your parents did their version of it too. 

  7. Doing two things at once is a myth. Yes. Even for you.

    What your brain is doing.

    Your brain can only focus well on one thing at a time. If you do more than that, your brain will actually switch between the two, so neither task will be done really well.

    How to make it work for you.

    Anything that comes with any risk at all deserves your full attention. This is why texting and driving is out. Same with trying to drive with a bunch of chatty friends or study in front of the television. Your brain is magnificent – but don’t make it do too much at once. 

  8. Sleep. It’s a superpower. (Yes, really that good.)

    What your brain is doing.

    Melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy is released about two hours later at night in an adolescent brain compared to an adult’s. This means that you’ll feel fully charged at around seven or eight o’clock and you won’t even feel like sleeping until after about 10pm. Melatonin stays in an adolescent body for longer which is why you’ll feel groggy in the morning. Because your brain it growing at a phenomenal rate, it needs sleep – about 9-10 hours of it. So many important things happen while you sleep:

    •  Your brain will get rid of the neurons it doesn’t need to make way for strengthening the ones that you do.

    •  Your memories and the things you have learned during the day will be strengthened. (This is why all-nighters aren’t a great idea.) 

    •  While you are asleep your brain will replay what you’ve learned, pull it apart and help to make sense of it for you. Same for emotional experiences. Adolescence can be a stressful and emotional time, and sleep is important to help you deal with this. 

    How to make it work for you.

    Write this down and put it on your mirror: ‘Everything feels better with sleep.’ Given that you probably won’t feel tired until about 10pm, start your wind-down about an hour before this. Put your devices away (I know! – but it will be worth it). The light from them will delay the release of melatonin and keep you awake for longer. Try reading, listening to music or studying just before bed. If you’re trying to figure something out, sleep on it – your brain will get busy on it while you sleep. Sleep when you can. It might not always be when the rest of the family is sleeping, but you’re on a different time clock to them.

    If you’re still not convinced about the super powers of sleep, here are some of the things that can happen if you don’t get enough: skin conditions (like acne) will flare up, you’ll be more likely to eat too much of the wrong food, you’ll be moody, cranky, impatient, and more likely to feel bad about yourself, you’ll be more likely to make bad decisions, you’ll have less capacity to learn, you’ll be less creative, less able to solve problems and more forgetful. 

  9. You’ll be quicker to read people as being disappointed with you. Sometimes you’ll be spot on. Often you won’t be.

    What your brain is doing.

    Adolescents and adults each use a different part of the brain when the interpret other people’s feelings. Adults will call on the rational prefrontal cortex to read facial expressions. This leads to a more accurate understanding of what someone might be feeling. Adolescents, on the other hand, will recruit the amygdala to interpret emotion. The amygdala is designed to be super sensitive to danger or threat and it runs on impulse and gut reaction. When you’re interpreting through this lens, you’ll be more likely to read anger or aggression when there isn’t any.

    How to make it work for you.

    Remember this when you think someone is being aggressive or hostile. Sometimes your interpretation will be spot on, but sometimes it will be completely wrong. The tendency to misread people can easily cause relationships to break. Be open to the possibility that just because you think someone is disappointed or angry with you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. One of your greatest powers is your ability to speak. If you are concerned about what someone is thinking, ask – in person if you can. Texting is great but when things are emotional, it can add to the confusion. Always be careful jumping to conclusions, and cool off before you react. If a situation feels black and white, there’s probably something you’re missing. The ability to manage relationships and emotions lies at the heart of emotional intelligence, which is one of the most powerful and important things you can have. Now is your time to practice, experiment and build it.

  10. You will worry more about what people might be thinking of you.

    What your brain is doing.

    Knowing you are being looked at, or anticipating being looked at, will be enough to bring on a strong response in your brain and your body. During adolescence, your brain will be particularly attentive to clues about what other people might be thinking about you. This might feel bad sometimes, particularly as you’re likely to misread a lot of that information. Adolescence can be tough! There is increased activity in the part of the brain that pays attention to social information and uses that information to make decisions about behaviour. This can be one of the reasons that you might be motivated to do riskier things when you’re with friends. There is also an increase in oxytocin, ‘the bonding hormone’, which drives you to be self-conscious – conscious of yourself – as you start to think about the kind of person you want to be and the world you want to live in, and how you can create that. This is a great thing but the downside is that it can make you sensitive to what other people might be thinking of you.

    How to make it work for you.

    This is what you have to know: Everyone your age will be worried about the very same thing – what other people are thinking of them. The adolescent brain is strongly wired to connect with peers, which is why the threat of exclusion hurts so much. Sometimes exclusion will happen, but it will have nothing to do with who you are. When people work as a group, one way they strengthen their identity and their solidarity is by pushing people away. It’s awful that people do this – it’s really awful but know that it is more about their own need to find who they are, in a really bad way, than about who you are. It’s lonely but know that this is temporary. It is no reflection on who you are. None. You’re brilliant, kind, smart, strong, amazing, which is why you’re nobody’s victim. 

  11. You might feel a distance between you and your parents.

    Your main goal of adolescence is to gently separate from your family tribe and find your new tribe – your peers. Part of you questioning your parents is the brain’s way of giving you the push to separate from the comfort and security of the family so you can find independence. Experiment with your independence – that’s really healthy, but don’t close the door too much to the people who love you. The part of your brain that is able to think about things abstractly and creatively will have you questioning the world and the way things are done. This is normal and healthy but remember that just because someone (like your parent/s) thinks differently, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. They’ll try to remember this too. You’ll start to realise your parents aren’t perfect and you will question the way they do things. The calmer you can be when you explain why something is important to you or why you disagree, the more likely you will be understood. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be agreed with, but if we all thought the same way, the world would be a pretty bland place. Be grateful for the differences. 

    Your family will always be important, but in a different way to the way they have been. It was the same for your parents and it will be the same for the generation that comes after you. It’s great that you’re able to think differently about things. It’s the accumulated wisdom of each generation of adolescents that keeps the world moving forward in ways that are rich, healthy and vital for everyone.

    Your parents love you. They’ve been there from the beginning and they’ll be there to the end. Let them into your world sometimes. It will mean more to them than you could ever know. You can always close the door when they leave.

So now that you know what your brain needs from you, you can’t blame it when things go wrong.

Your brain has a lot of sway, but that doesn’t mean you can blame your brain every time you make a mess of things. People won’t care what your brain is doing when they’re stooped and sore from picking up the pieces. You’re not a robot and ultimately you’re the only one in charge of your decisions. Slow down enough to think about things from all angles – even the ones you might not want to know about. Rather than forging ahead, take a step back to look at the bigger picture. The difference between really brave and really stupid is the amount of time you spend thinking about the consequences.  

Finally, know how awesome you are. All of these changes are steering you in the direction of something amazing. Things won’t always go to plan, and some days will be awful. As long as you’re making the best decisions you can to stay safe, you’ll look back on these times and you’ll laugh. The mistakes, the falls, the embarrassing moments – one day those stories will be gold.  

And finally …

All new skills take time to master. It’s no different for our teens. In the meantime, they might wobble. A lot. So will we. We are learning to see them in a different light – as soon-to-be adults who will be independent of us. We are learning to trust their capacity to cope, and to stand back and let them steady themselves. They have it in them to be extraordinary. The more information they have, the more potential they have to find the most direct way there.

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31 Comments

Chet

Another wonderfully written article, making brain research so real and intriguing and giving me wonderful ways to share this info with the family’s and adolescents I work with.
I so look forward to these weekly readings!
Thanks Karen.

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Juan

Congratulations on your great article! I’ll be sure to share it with my two adolescent daughters.

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Robert Hammel

Great article. Teens are very “wobbly” and it’s our job as adults to help them gain balance and even let them fall over sometimes. 🙂 I just shared this with an adolescent I know. Thank you.

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Jo

Great article!
Forwarded to my gorgeous 13 year old son for the jornet ahead of him.

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Christine

Great, well-written article. Accessible to both adolescents & their parents.

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Cindy

Thanks so much for this article. I know a ‘nearly thirteen’ year old who is going through a ‘contrary’ stage in her life. I think it will be a good thing for her to read this.
Many thanks.
Gwen

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Hey Sigmund

Ahhh a contrary teen – sounds like she’s well on track then! I’m so pleased you found the article and I hope it helps to make sense of some things for her.

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Susan

Thank you very much for this insightful article. I am a Grand Mother and I have got so much out of it. Wish you had one for my age group (72)

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Cindy Foreshaw

Hi Susan,
Don’t you just love the articles we get from Karen? If you want to share your thoughts with a 74 yr old…that would be me. I know what you mean about having an article for this age group. Sometimes not easy. “If not for this body…what troubles would I have?”
Kind regards,

Cindy Foreshaw. You can view my profile on Linkedin cinnie67@gmail.com

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Karen

Thanks for this article Karen. I work with adolescents – among others – and they have asked me for more information about the brain. What a great way to do that with them – you have given me some very useful ideas about how to, not only tell them more about the brain, but in the process help them to learn more about themselves and how to help that brain they are so interested in!!

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Sj

Wow!!! Thank you so much, I know feel a lot calmer about my teenager and how to deal with issues.
He keeps stating he has anger issues and I keep telling him they are hormone issues – now I can share this with him and we can look at ways to manage it better.

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Hey Sigmund

Oh I’m so pleased you found this post – now you can tell your son that the only issues he has are adolescent ones, and that every adolescent he knows will likely be struggling with the same thing at some point. This is an article that might help – the strategies and the explanation are relevant for adolescents and adults as well. It’s a journey!

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Jan

A timely article for my family …having a 13 year old girl and a soon to be 16 year old boy is a steep learning curve for my husband and I in our mid 50’s….but speaking for myself…I am enjoying the journey amidst the tears and laughter!

On a separate note we would love to know your thoughts/if you have any articles/insights on how the teenager’s discovery/realisation that one of their parents smokes can affect their thinking and ensuing behaviour. There was meltdown at the time and the past months have been difficult.

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Hey Sigmund

Jan I’m so pleased this article has come along at the right time for you! About the issue you have at the moment with your teens finding out that one of their parents are smoking, if the smoking has been kept a secret, it’s very likely that this factored into the meltdown. From there, it will depend on what they’ve been told, the response of the parent, and the significant issues for them that come from this. Their response may well be more about what they may see as a deception, rather than the actual smoking, although the implications of smoking for the parent may also be an issue. If things continue to be difficult, there’s probably something that continues to be a concern for them. Have they been given the opportunity to say how they feel or to voice any concerns they have? Has that been validated? Have their feelings been acknowledged? If there has been lies or deception (even if the intentions were good ones), has this been acknowledged? Has an apology been made for keeping the secret? Keep in mind that their response is more likely to be about the secret than the smoking. It’s likely that this has come as a shock to them. At a time when everything feels as though it’s changing anyway, for teens, finding out that one of your parents has been keeping a secret like this can make things feel a little unstable for a while. That can be healed, but for this to happen, it’s important to let them say what they need to say and to validate that. Be patient with them. Teens can have very unrealistic expectations of their parents, and part of adolescence is realising that your parents are human. This can shake things up for a while – that’s all part of adolescence – but they will come back. I know it can be hard in the meantime, but hang in there.

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Magdalene A. U

I am 24
A Tanzania lady, This article just took me back to the days of my adolescent cravings, confusions, fears, endlesstears, unanswered questions and nobody to talk to……..
I will surely keep this for my future daughters and sons…… More for daughters for I know the hassles myself

Thanks for this

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Yes our adolescent brains were the same. It sounds as though the wisdom from your experiences will be so valuable for understanding the things your daughters go through. Sounds like they are in good hands.

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Robert

Such information for me and my wife Our 16 year old daughter is in need of a reset, using our credit card for small purchases (via ApplePay) without asking permission, borrowing sister’s and mothers clothes without asking, coloring her hair with box color even though we told her not to (not crazy colors) experimenting with pot, not eating healthy (she’s been Type 1 diabetic since age 2) Reacts overly angry to discipline All of it seems normal enough, but should not be ignored I would think She asked to speak with a counselor, which we thought was great Thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

It’s a great sign that your daughter wants to talk to someone. Speaking with someone outside the family can be really valuable sometimes. Adolescence can be a rocky time for everyone can’t it.

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Cindy

It’s a very confusing society we live. You hear many older people say : “Now when I was a child…”,, But guess what? I believe it WAS a lot less confusing to be a child ‘back in the day’. Generally speaking, I didn’t have to deal with peers offering me strange mood changing tablets. I didn’t feel compelled to run with the crowd. (or is that just me). I can stand my own company. Sometimes more than other people’s, even though I love socializing and taking part in group activities. I did not have to own every
new ‘app’ which came onto the market. There was no such Market. We played in the street, we made our own games up and we ‘LIVED’. Yes…I am glad I am not a child in today’s world. Confusing to say the least…Terrifying to say the worst. The children of today need some serious support.

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Erin

Excellent! This is why coaching with teens and young adults is so effective…. We help them acquire the “information” ….

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Antonella

Thank you, thank you for a great article. My cousin passed this onto me as we are going through a bit of a rough time with our 16 year old daughter. Psychiatrist wants to put her on anti-depressant medication for social anxiety and derealisation and depersonalisation induced anxiety. I don’t feel that she is as severe as what the psychiatrist is saying rather going through normal stages of life. I will pass this onto her. Thank you.

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Cindy Foreshaw

Before you start your daughter on those heavy drugs…please get a really good second opinion. She might be going through a rough time dealing with ‘society’ and good old fashioned ‘life’. My son was put on very heavy anti-psychotic drugs when he was 18. On reflection (27 yrs down the track) I think he needed, first and foremost to be understood in his dealings with a very feral society. In other words, real conditions he was battling silently. But he never spoke to anyone about until it was at a critical stage. He needed help when he was about 10 or so, when I look back. Sooner, better than later a good policy.
I send my love to you and your daughter…please feel free to email me to talk. I am now a Therapist and would be more than happy to keep a talk link going with you.

Kind Regards,
Cindy Foreshaw. cinnie67@gmail.com
P.S. You can view my profile on Linkedin.

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Jugal

Wonderful explanation of changes and processes of adolescent’s mind in simpler manner. Congratulations Karen!!

Reply

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