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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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