Living with teens can at times feel as though you’re living in a vastly different world to theirs. Yours is built around, ‘Let’s stay close and navigate through this adolescent thing together. And let’s talk a lot because I need to know you’re okay.’ Theirs is built around, ‘I’m learning how to be my own person so please don’t get in my way. And can you please stop asking me so many questions? It’s annoying.’
Nobody’s adventure through adolescence is seamless. If time has softened memories of your own adolescence to ones that are conflict-free, struggle-free and imbued with a beautiful ease, it’s likely that thanks to the fallibility of the human memory, things have been polished up a little. The struggles with independence, relationships and identity all contain the wisdom and growth needed to be a thriving, independent adult. As with so many things, the opportunities for growth will lie somewhere in the middle of the beautiful mess.
The changes that come with adolescence are normal and important and are driven by a brain that is undergoing phenomenal changes. Some of the changes will be wonderful to watch, but at times things will get tough – there will be tears, probably some yelling, and the occasional (or not so occasional!) flare-up to work through. A powerful way to do this is to understand what’s driving them.
Behind the Flare-up: Understanding the Teenage Brain.
An abundance of research has established that the adolescent brain interprets emotional expressions differently to the adult brain.
When adults interpret facial expressions, the most active (most used) part of the brain is the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain. The prefrontal cortex plans, considers consequences and puts the brakes on emotional reactions for at least long enough to check out whether those reactions are warranted, or whether the expression of those reactions is wise given the circumstances. The prefrontal cortex helps with the subtleties: ‘Are those raised eyebrows from shock or disgust?’ ‘Are they angry forehead creases or confused ones?’ ‘Is that smile playful or sarcastic?’
When adolescents interpret someone’s emotional expressions, the most active part of the brain is the amygdala at the back of the brain. The amygdala drives impulsive, instinctive, gut-level responses. It’s called on because the pre-frontal cortex is still under construction and won’t be fully developed until around age 24.
For teens, it’s a double hit. They are under the influence of a brain that is biased towards ‘it’s out to get me – fight it or flee it’, without the gentle hand of the pre-frontal cortex to calm things down. This tends them towards fight (the argument) or flight (the stone-cold shoulder) at anything that might threaten something important to them. And yes, being able to sleep, spend time with their friends, and know that you’re okay with them all count as ‘something important’.
With a fully charged amygdala, an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and a need for greater independence from parents, the venture through adolescence could be likened to riding in a new high-performance sports car with plenty of power, no brakes and a relentless urge to get to the destination independently of GPS guidance.
Just Tell Me: When Will It Stop?
As teens move through adolescence, the amygdala surrenders some of its control to the pre-frontal cortex. The connections between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex strengthen and they become more of a team. The amygdala is still active and alert to possible threats, but the pre-frontal cortex is able to analyse the subtleties and weigh in with a more appropriate response when it needs to. The adolescent brain won’t have its full adult capabilities until around age 24 but there are ways to calm the flare-ups in the meantime.
How to Deal With Teenage Flare-Ups.
Let them know you’re on their team.
Teens don’t want to disconnect from their parents. It might feel as though they do, but they don’t. Adolescence is a time when they need our love and connection more than ever. The truth is that we don’t have control but we can have influence. For this to happen, they need to know that we’ve got their backs and that we’re not going to put a flashing light around everything they get wrong.
Help them understand why they do what they do.
Teens are going through massive changes that at times will feel confusing, exhausting and isolating for them. And you. Talk to them about how the changes in the brain contribute to the flare-ups so they can get some clarity, feel normal, and know that you get it. Here is a scaffold for the conversation:
I want to talk to you about something really amazing that happens in your brain when you hit adolescence. It will help your relationships and it will help you and me to be better for each other.
At the beginning of adolescence, your brain gets powered up with a billion or so new brain cells. This is so you can learn and do everything you need to be a thriving adult. You’ll become more creative, you’ll have different ways of looking at things, and you’ll start to be more independent – but there are other things that will take time. It’s the same for everyone. It was the same for me when I was your age.
One of the things that will take time is learning how to read the emotional expressions of other people. Being able to read people is important to communicating well and keeping your relationships strong and healthy, because we base our own responses to people on what we think they’re feeling. Nobody was born a wizard at reading emotions. It’s something we all have to learn. Your brain is a big player in this and if you can understand what your brain is doing, it can really help things along.
During adolescence, your brain will sculpt itself into the perfect brain for you. It does this by strengthening the connections between brain cells. The stronger the connections between brain cells in certain parts of the brain, the stronger that part will be and the better it will work.
A lot has to happen to strengthen the connections between that many brain cells. It doesn’t happen all at once. In fact, it will take about 10-12 years. The strengthening starts from the back of your brain and slowly works towards the front. The whole process won’t be finished until you’re about 24.
The first part of your brain to strengthen, at the back, has the job of keeping you alive by noticing anything that might threaten your happiness or well-being. It’s called the amygdala. It’s responsible for your impulsive, instinctive reactions to things. When you need to be quick about something, like getting out of the way of trouble or defending yourself, it’s perfect for the job. If it senses trouble (such as an angry person) it gets you ready to fight the trouble or run from it. It does this without thinking about consequences or whether your response is a good idea.
When it comes to interpreting other people’s emotional expressions, this is the part of the brain that all adolescents use because it’s one of the strongest and most developed.
The amygdala is all action and not a lot of thought. It’s biased towards reading everything as ‘it’s out to get me – better fight it or get out of the way.’ What this means is that it will be really easy – and really normal – for you to misread what people are feeling and become upset when there’s actually nothing to be upset about. Sometimes you might read me as being angry or disappointed – and sometimes you’ll be spot on – but sometimes it won’t be how I’m feeling at all. When your brain is giving you such a strong message about something, it’s really understandable that you would respond as though that message is true, even if it’s not actually accurate.
None of this means that you can use your brain as an excuse for bad behaviour. It’s your brain – you own it – so you’re the only one who can be responsible for it. And you do have to be responsible for it. It’s about being as smart as you can with your emotions and your responses. Emotional intelligence is a powerful thing to have.
As you move through adolescence and the front of your brain starts to strengthen, a part of your brain called the pre-frontal cortex starts to get involved in helping you read what people might be feeling. This part of the brain is like the brakes for any impulsive, instinctive reactions that might get you into trouble, such as firing up at the wrong person. The pre-frontal cortex checks things out, thinks about consequences, and plans the best way to respond.
So while your amygdala is reactive, impulsive and instinctive, your pre-frontal cortex is calm, rational and logical. Both parts of the brain are important but things will always run more smoothly when they work as a team. Until the connections between them strengthen, you’ll have your amygdala misinterpreting other people’s expressions as anger or disappointment, but you won’t have the full help of your pre-frontal cortex to calm things down.
There are things we can both do to stop things flaring up between us. I’ll try to be clearer about how I’m feeling. If you misinterpret me, I’ll try to let you know calmly. In return it will make big difference if you can remind yourself that I might be feeling differently to what you think. If I say I’m not angry, I need you to believe me so we can talk calmly about what might be going on.
Every time you engage your prefrontal cortex, by checking things out or by staying calm, you’re strengthening the connections and making it easier for the pre-frontal cortex to get involved and help you read people more accurately and respond more effectively. Experience changes your brain. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Another thing to do is to breathe deeply and slowly when you feel yourself getting upset – in for 3, hold it for 1, out for 3. This will trigger something called a relaxation response, which is when your brain neutralises the chemicals (adrenalin, stress hormones) it has surged through your body at the request of the amygdala to get you ready for fight or flight.
Something else to try is mindfulness training. There has been a lot of research that has proven that mindfulness – being still and paying attention to what’s happening inside you or around you – will strengthen the connections between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala. 10 minutes a day is enough to make a difference. There’s a really popular app that will talk you through it if you’re interested. Up to you. (Click here for the Smiling Minds app.)
Sometimes I will be disappointed or upset with you and sometimes you will be with me, and that’s okay – it’s about how we deal with it. Whatever happens, nothing is going to change how amazing I think you are.
Let them ‘borrow’ your prefrontal cortex. (This is the big one!)
When things get woolly, there will be two options. The first is to join them in the fight – active amygdalas have a way of stirring up other amygdalas – but this will only breathe life into the flare-up. The second option is to smother the flames with some pre-frontal cortex sensibility and calm. Your teen won’t have enough of their own, but you can ‘loan’ them yours. You can do this by being the one to stay calm, slow things down, hold the ground steady and to wait for them to catch up. ‘I want to hear what you have to say – I can tell it’s important to you. Can you speak to me calmly?’ It doesn’t mean accepting disrespect or agreeing to whatever they want. It means being the one to lead them gently out of the mess and into a space that’s calm, loving and clear of the noise.
Soften the landing.
Make sure your message lands the way you want it to by starting with something that makes it clear you’re not about to ruin something important to them. Rather than, ‘What time will you be home?’ (which might be heard as, ‘I’m not sure about this party so I’m not going to let you stay for long,’) try, ‘I’m pleased you’re going to the party. It sounds like fun. What time do you think you’ll be home?’ In short, you’re less likely to be treated as a threat when it’s really – really – clear that you aren’t one.
Look for your part in it.
When the heat gets turned up, it’s really normal to get caught up in the emotion of things. Adults don’t have perfectly behaved brains all the time either. Learning that nobody is perfect is a valuable lesson for all teens, as is the importance of owning that imperfection and apologising for it when it stirs up trouble. Owning and acknowledging your part, however small, can be a really powerful way to take the steam out of a situation. It’s a way to show that you’re not a ‘threat’ and that you’re open to reconnecting, listening, and not blaming or staying mad.
Adolescence is a learning time for everyone and nobody was born knowing how to do it well. These are lifelong skills you’re teaching them about how to handle conflict, how to read people and how to respond. It will take time and practice – same as it did for us. Give them space to get it totally wrong sometimes, and give yourself the same grace.
Let it be about the behaviour, not the person.
With their brains on high alert, teens will be particularly quick to feel shame if they think you’re upset. Shame isn’t always timid. Sometimes it comes out roaring. Or swearing. Avoid the possibility of throwing them into shame as much as you can by responding to what they do, rather than who they are. Rather than, ‘You’re so disrespectful,’ try, ‘I feel disrespected when you yell like that.’
Don’t generalise. Just don’t.
For every time you say ‘you always’ or ‘you never’, they will remind you of the one exception. Then they’ve got you. The argument will stop being about whether or not they took out the rubbish, and will become about the way you accused them of ‘never’ taking out the rubbish, ‘which is actually a lie because I take it out all the time but you only notice when I don’t take it out which is such a shitty thing to do to someone and don’t tell me not to swear because swearing isn’t anywhere near as bad as accusing someone of something that isn’t true and you know it’s not true because I’m the only one who ever does it and if I didn’t do it we’d be living in a house full of garbage which we don’t because I TAKE OUT THE RUBBISH!! and I can’t belie…’ Ugh. Just don’t go there.
You’ll always get more by listening than by talking.
The more they feel as though you haven’t heard them, the more they’ll talk and the louder they’ll talk. Listen and let them know that you understand – it doesn’t mean you agree, just that you understand that what they’re saying is important to them. Once they feel heard and understood, it will be much easier to move forward and have your own view heard.
And finally …
When flare-ups happen, it’s not because your teen is trying to be difficult or manipulative. They’re waiting for their cognitive ‘brakes’ to arrive and until they do, they’ll sometimes lose it on the bends. They simply don’t have what they need for it to be any other way. But we do. By ‘loaning’ them some of our prefrontal cortex sensibility – and at times it will take the strength of a warrior to do this – we can start to lead them clear of the fight and into a calm, loving space where they can have the support they need and we can have the influence we want.
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