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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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