Turning Teenage - Understanding Adolescence

09/08/2013 11:06 pm 23:06:04 | Updated 08 November 2013

I was talking to someone the other day whose thirteen-year-old son had just "turned". (Her word.) He'd come downstairs for school with his shirt untucked and hair all over the place. "Come on, tidy yourself up, and we'll get in the car," she'd said, as she would have done the morning before. "Why?" he'd replied, in a way he wouldn't have the morning before.

Parents are used to small children asking why. Why does the sun shine? Why do squares have four sides? Why do we have blood? But these are different types of "why" from the one my friend's boy meant. Something had changed inside him that made him question or push against his parent's values. He was moving from child to adult. Breaking away. Turning.

Some young people segue into adolescence smoothly, unnoticeably, charming their way seamlessly towards adulthood and independence from parental control. Others don't. For many, the transition is sudden, bewildering for them and the adults surrounding them. For some parents, a few years of wry bewilderment lie ahead. For others, there will be a roller-coast ride of real fear, stress and doubt. For many, something in between, or flux between phases. The differences will depend on many things, including peers, environment, the specific pressures of the society the family is in, personalities, luck, and brain changes. And the brain changes will be both individual and adolescent.

The key to surviving - and even, with luck thrown in, thriving - during these years, for both teenager and parent, is understanding. Not just an attempt at sympathy and shoulder-patting by well-meaning adults, but a genuine attempt to understand the biological and physical upheaval that moves a human from dependent child to independent adult, from protected to decision-maker, from becoming to become. The brain changes don't necessarily explain everything but if you see them alongside the often extreme pressures on teenagers (pressures which vary between generations and cultures), it is at least hardly surprising that so many adolescents (and their significant adults) have a tough time.

This turmoil is not new. In 1904, G Stanley Hall called adolescence "a phase of upheaval and trauma, storm and stress." Shakespeare talked of it more than once. My favourite reference comes from the Winter's Tale, where one shepherd says to another, "I would there were no age between ten and three and twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting... Hark you now! Would any but these boil'd brains of nineteen and two and twenty hunt this weather?" And humans are not alone in this period of stress. Other mammals such as rats seem to have a short period of changed sleep patterns, extra aggression, spending more time with peers than parents and taking more risks. (Keep adolescent rats away from alcohol, I say.)

The more scientists investigate, the more they find specific differences in activity between the brains of adolescents and adults: differences in emotional control, judging emotion from someone else's face, dopamine activity when processing risk choices or indulging in risky or exciting things, the parts of the brain active during embarrassing social situations, the ability to judge whether something is risky. Sleep patterns are different: teenagers normally need more sleep but their melatonin patterns mean that they don't feel sleepy till late at night, but sleepiness levels are still high in the morning. Electronic gadgets in the bedroom don't help...

Understanding this, and more, and discussing which behaviours are biology-based and which more influenced by society, peers, parents and personality, is an important step towards reducing stress and harm on both sides. But it's not enough.

We also, I argue, have responsibilities: responsibilities to set boundaries and to negotiate them well; responsibilities to model good behaviour (where possible - we are not perfect!), because brains learn by imitation; responsibilities to forgive, because mistakes will happen; responsibilities to step back and let those mistakes happen. And that, for loving parents and caring teachers, is perhaps the hardest thing of all.

Understand, support, and then step back if possible.

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I will be discussing all of this and much more, sharing the up-to-date science of the teenage brain, and talking about how we can understand our teenagers better, in a one-day course for any adults living or working with teenagers, in London on Oct 5th. I'd love to see you there! My book, Blame My Brain - The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed, will be followed by The Teenage Guide to Stress in 2014.