Disrupting Chaos - working with the teenage brain

Here, after a bit of delay, is the video of my talk from May's youthwork summit.  And it is a timely update, with recent media discussion of the changes taking place in teenage brains emphasising that all this chaos doesn't finally settle down into what we call the 'adult' brain, until well into their 20s (see Is 25 the new cut-off point for adulthood?).  

This talk is a whistlestop tour of some of the changes going on in teenage brains - giving some insight into the kinds of behaviours we find most challenging when we're trying to support them, bring them up well, or just get them out of bed and into school on time and how they are linked to the changes going on in our teenagers' brains.  

In the meantime, here's a few quick things to remember about the trials and tribulations of teenage years...

(1)  Adolescence doesn't start when you become a teenager.
No, nothing amazing or mythical happens on the morn of your child's 13th birthday.  In fact for most the changes of adolescence start before this point, usually in ways you cannot see as their hormones start to gear up to the more obvious physical changes.  Its not considered premature for puberty to begin as early as 8.  So perhaps the 'tweenager' label is more accurate than you thought.

(2) Adolescence takes time
This might sound obvious, of course young people are 'adolescent' for a number of years.  But how often do we expect them to suddenly, overnight start to behave like adults?  Adolescence is a period of time when they are developing adult thinking and, of course, their adult bodies.    Just as those bodies take time to change, so do their brains.  So, give them some space, expect them to get stuff wrong for a while and help them to learn.

(3) Body can be faster than mind
Too often we judge on appearances - so we look at a teenager who appears really grown up - they are taller than you for goodness sake! - and assume that psychologically they are also grown up.  Remember, the physical changes that occur in adolescence tend to happen much faster than the cognitive changes.  In fact the latter continue right into their twenties, as the recent media attention reported.  So just becuase they look like adults doesn't mean they will behave like them.  

(4) Adolescence is about learning who you are
One of the most often quoted lines from teenagers I have worked with is 'I just don't know who I am.'  The good news is - that is normal!  Adolescence is about starting to figure out who you are, who you think you should be and who you want to be.  It is a time to try out different versions of yourself and start to figure out which ones fit.  Teenagers can be one person one day and another the next - that's all part of normal healthy exploration.  That elusive idea of 'who you are' starts to settle somewhere around the end of the teens/start of the twenties.  

(5) It doesn't have to be messy
We hear a lot about adolescence, and right now in the uk a lot of it is a bit depressing.  With the highest rates in europe of many problems hitting adolescents - emotional issues like self harm, addictions like drug or alcohol misuse, and behaviour issues like teenage pregnancy - the Uk may seem to play host to a lot of troubled teens.  But it is worth remembering that it doesn't have to be painful.  Experiencing some challenges with the new extreme and unpredictable emotions adolescene brings is perfectly normal, and part of learning good, healthy, adult coping strategies to help you deal with your emotions - and whatever life throws at you as an adult.  But it is possible to also learn how to be happy, and resilient through life's ups and downs.  You wouldn't know this though from watching or reading teen fiction, where there is a distinct trend between being cool and being troubled or unhappy.  Remind your teens that it is great to be happy.  Encourage them to learn just as much about what makes them feel happy as what makes them feel sad, and help them learn the tricks to lift their mood on rough days.  

(6) If it does get messy don't panic
I love working with teenagers and young people.  On the one hand when they hit problems they can blow up incredibly quickly and become very worrying in a short space of time.  On the other hand their capacity to change is amazing.  Teenager years are all about potential as their brains start to twist and change and become adult.  Those big issues of who they are, how they think, what they believe about the world - are still up for grabs.  They are still learning how to deal with emotions which are stil changing.  They have the rest of their lives ahead of them.  If you are supporting a teen or young person who has hit problems the most important thing is not to panic.  Remember, these years are about big dramatic swings in mood and emotion.  Things do feel very dramatic very quickly but this doesn't mean all hope is gone.  Teenagers can turn things around just as quickly.  It does mean however that you need to get them help quickly.  If you are concerned something may have gone beyond normal teenager mood swings get some advice.  Don't just assumed they are destined to be 'a bit moody' or that they will always struggle with depression.  Talk to your GP, or contact one of the many brilliant charities there are out there.  Get them help and start the process of turning things around.  Remember lessons learned then will be things they can apply to the rest of their lives.

(7) Learn how to talk teenager
Adolescence is a time of great changes in their brains.  Throughout those years having opportunities to talk, mull things over, bounce ideas around with someone older - these things can be the great big landmarks in someone's journey through.  The thing with teenagers is that talking isn't that easy anymore.  As they come out of the 'me centred' mindset of childhood the sudden realisation that other people might have opinions about them leaves them feeling incredibly shy, wary of being the focus of attention. So learn how to talk teenager.  Don't make a big deal of it, sit them down opposite you and have an intense chat.  This will feel like the spanish inquisition.  Make use of casual, non deliberate opportunities to chat, especially if you are not looking straight at them.  Car journeys can be a gift for this!  Do whatever you can to make it feel like the focus isn't too much on them - background noise (the tv, radio, whatever) is great.  Don't be offended if they tweet/read texts etc whilst chatting to you.  Its all part of making sure it doesn't feel too overwhelming. And remember great talks do not need to take hours.  Think back to the most significant things you remember being said to you when you were a teen.  Most will be simple sentences, short stuff or off the cuff remarks.  Never underestimate the value of just chatting.  

Kate Middleton, 27/09/2013
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