How to Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Children and Teens by Understanding Their Unique Brain Chemistry (by SCCR)

Sometimes young people can get tarred with the same old brush. They’re lazy, loud, don’t listen, or sleep in too late! But one of the main reasons they are different is because…. well that’s just it, they ARE different. Their brain chemistry isn’t like that of babies, toddlers, or adults because their brains and bodies are growing, developing and learning every day.

If we can understand this as parents, it can really help us on our parenting journey. It can also help if we understand ourselves and our own history. Learning how to understand each other can help us have better relationships at home, and, where needed, help us to avoid conflict. 

That’s why the Cyrenains’ Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) have been working on ways to help everyone understand how our brain works and how what is going on in our mind and body can have a big impact on our relationships.

Their new digital resource – the Emotional Homunculus – helps us understand how our past experiences mould how we act and react to situations, and how all our emotional states (for example, Fight or Flight, Rest and Digest) and the way we act and react come from a selection of powerful chemicals in the Brains Amazing Drugs Cabinet.

The aim is to give parents, young people (and professionals) an understanding of how what’s happening inside us (and what happened in our past!) can dictate how we act and react to situations, particularly when it comes to arguments – and to pass on some Top Tips on how to maintain the best balance between the chemicals in our brain!

The SCCR have developed a brilliant resource at https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/homunculus, with a host of information to help understand brain chemistry – important information that can be used to nurture healthy relationships and strong connections with the children and teens in our lives.

The SCCR have picked out three of the most common drugs below, and shared some of the best top tips on helping both parents and young people keep them in balance to create the most harmonious home-life possible. 

1.  Melatonin (the Brain’s Marvellous Sleep Drug)

Melatonin helps control everyone’s sleeping and waking cycles depending on habit, daylight and seasons. But teenager brains produce Melatonin later in the day (sometimes two hours later than the average child or adult) which means they stay up longer, plus there’s still Melatonin in their blood steams in the morning (hence the desire to sleep in). As we get older Melatonin is released earlier in the evening, which may be why as parents we feel like falling asleep in front of the television. It also explains why adults tend to wake up earlier.

Top Tips
  • As parents consider whether having an argument about sleeping in late when it’s a chemically induced state is worth it – instead maybe think about discussing Melatonin and how your teenagers brain is different to open up ways you can solve the problem together, for example, establishing that good sleep routine, earlier nights before school/exam, or even letting them sleep in on days where there’s no need to get up. 
  • Getting a good night’s sleep is vital for growing teenage bodies and minds – so encouraging teenagers to go to bed and switch off screens at a fixed time each night will help a good sleep routine, improve memory, mood and immune systems.
  • Parents can also do with a good sleep routine, so instead of pushing yourself to get through everything and then falling asleep on the couch, think about a new routine, maybe some gentle stretching, or a bath and a good book. It’ll help your body to rest properly.

2.  Dopamine (the Brain’s Deluxe Joy Drug)

Dopamine creates a feeling of euphoria and heightens our sense of making experiences more pleasurable. It plays a big part in the state of ‘Rest and Digest’.

Teenagers seem to get more excited about things but that’s because their levels of Dopamine are less regulated than adults and flow easily through their brains and bodies. Hence them taking risks or quickly feeling like they are on top of the world from certain experiences. Part of our biological development involves the brain’s ability to learn when to release Dopamine and how much each situation needs. Teenagers need to have experiences to learn what’s safe and unsafe, which actions bring rewards, and which bring reprimands (not just from parents/carers but also friends and society).

Top Tips
  • Too much Dopamine in teenagers can cause risk-taking behaviour or cause them to put themselves in harm’s way. Talk to your teenager about ways they can take a step back from situations if they feel like things are getting a bit out of hand. Help them to think about how they can take a moment to think about what is happening and make a call about continuing, or getting out of a situation?
  • Work on ways to increase your dopamine – when we’re ‘Alert and Engaged’ we’re able to concentrate better and see the bigger picture. Dopamine also increases the effects of other drugs in the Brain’s Amazing Drugs Cabinet.

3.  Adrenaline (the Brain’s Amazing Action Drug)

Adrenaline is one over which our conscious mind has the least control throughout our lifetime; after all we need Adrenaline to jump out of harm’s way even before our thinking brains have realised the danger is there. Adrenaline is the fastest acting chemical and can last in the bloodstream for up to an hour after its first triggered.

It plays a huge part in the states of ‘Alert and Engaged’ keeping us ready to act – but also in ‘Anxious and Afraid’ by keeping our senses selective and looking for trouble. So it can be a tricky customer to manage!

While young people’s brains and bodies are still developing. Adrenaline is triggered as easily and stays in the bloodstream for as long as fully-grown adults, so the effects can feel overwhelming. The other important thing to remember is that your body doesn’t know the difference between Adrenaline being triggered by a false alarm or real danger. So, if you’re not using the Adrenaline to run away from real danger then that drug can stay in your body and turn into aggressive behaviour or irritability.

Top Tips
  • Having conversations about this at home is helpful. Talking about the role that Adrenaline has to play in anger (at a time when everyone is calm) is really useful. Reminding ourselves that Adrenaline is our brain and body’s way of protecting us and that aggression can sometimes be a side-effect of too much left-over Adrenaline is a useful starting point.
  • One good way to rid yourself of excessive Adrenaline – both as a teenager and as a parent – is to exercise.
  • Teenagers watch out! Online games are not a way to relax. These games are designed to keep your Adrenaline levels at trigger point so you’ll feel as irritable and agitated as when you stop.
  • To avoid Adrenaline overwhelming your system, practice some mindful breathing. Exhale, and notice the breath as it flows in and out.
  • Take a step back when you feel your Adrenaline levels starting to rise. If you can try to take the other person’s perspective or shift yours.

Discover more at https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/homunculus.

Please join SCCR on social media @sccrcentre on Facebook and Twitter to share what you think of the new resources, and your own #toptips on how to avoid arguments at home, using the hashtag #cranialcocktail.

Image Credit: Hannah Foley

9 Comments

John R

I have a 20 year old step son that has only had one job and kept it for only a month has never worked and Wife has to apply for jobs for him he has no intention of getting a job, he is not a self starter lazy sleeps all day and up at night on Xbox wife serves him and treats him like a baby, she has to even apply and get applications for him then has to fill out applications it’s driving me nuts

Reply
Deirdre

This is fabulous information! It makes me understand my 12 1/2 year old son more. Thanks!

Reply
The SCCR Team

Hi Deirdre,

We (at the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) are delighted to be able to work with Hey Sigmund to share the message about how brain chemistry can affect our relationships – especially in the teenage years.

Do visit the project website for more of the Brain’s Amazing Drugs
https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/homunculus or why not take a fun quiz and discover what type of brain you have Monkey or Lizard https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/monkeyvslizard
or what Act you would be in the Circus of Life! https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/keeptheheid

Please get in touch if you’d like any further information on any other related topics!

best regards,
The SCCR Team

Reply
The SCCR Team

Hi George,

Thanks for your comment!

We (at the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) are delighted to be able to work with Hey Sigmund to share the message about how brain chemistry can affect our relationships – especially in the teenage years.

Do visit the project website for more of the Brain’s Amazing Drugs
https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/homunculus or why not take a fun quiz and discover what type of brain you have Monkey or Lizard https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/monkeyvslizard
or what Act you would be in the Circus of Life! https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/keeptheheid

Please get in touch if you’d like any further information on any other related topics!

best regards,
The SCCR Team

Reply
The SCCR Team

Hi Michelle,

We (at the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) are delighted to be able to work with Hey Sigmund to share the message about how brain chemistry can affect our relationships – especially in the teenage years.

Do visit the project website for more of the Brain’s Amazing Drugs
https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/homunculus or why not take a fun quiz and discover what type of brain you have Monkey or Lizard https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/monkeyvslizard
or what Act you would be in the Circus of Life! https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/keeptheheid

Please get in touch if you’d like any further information on any other related topics!

best regards,
The SCCR Team

Reply
mrs Lisa J M

I have four children all very individuals and only one mother me and the reading about teens and children of this age is extremely helpful to myself as a Mammy to open conversations like this with my children, something a little bit interesting and helpful too , a kind of fun in a different way and ways of my child also learning about herself, marvellous

Reply
The SCCR Team

Dear Lisa,

We (at the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) are so happy that you found the article useful and enjoyed sharing the ideas with your children.

If you’d like to initiate further discussions with them then do visit the project website for more of the Brain’s Amazing Drugs
https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/homunculus or why not take a fun quiz and discover what type of brain each of you has Monkey or Lizard https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/monkeyvslizard
or what Act you would be in the Circus of Life! https://scottishconflictresolution.org.uk/brain/keeptheheid

Please get in touch if you’d like any further information on any other related topics!

best regards,
The SCCR Team

Reply

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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