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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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