Teenagers are a puzzle to parents and teachers and have been for generations. What has changed is that neuroscience and psychology research is helping us understand them so much better. The recently released book The Incredible Teenage Brain by Bettina Hohnen, Jane Gilmour and Tara Murphy unpacks this by offering an accessible account of this science. The book answers that burning question from all adults supporting teenagers – what do they want from me?, offering practical advice for parents and teachers. 

So what do teens need from us?

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They need us to try to understand what is going on for them 

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 The science: The science is indisputable that during this time in life (starting around the time of puberty and going through to our mid-20s) some things (like new experiences or friends) become technicolored and other things (like childhood pastimes) fade to black and white. Parents and teachers can mistake these teen-driven behaviour for fixed traits when actually they are helping young people in their developmental tasks. Their brain drives them towards new situations to they can experience, explore and learn about the world. Key questions consuming teens are how do I fit in (focus on friendships), who am I? (focus on self-identity) and what do I believe in (focus on developing own views and becoming independent).

Action point: Their priorities do not always match ours because their brains are busy focusing on these questions. Just knowing this helps us understand teen behaviour and make it less irritating or something we need to respond to, change or try to fix.

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They’re in need of someone to listen and empathise

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The science: Teen emotions are strong, both highs and lows, while their brains are going through the final ‘upgrade’ and systems are aligning in strength. It’s tempting to just blame their hormones, but this is unhelpful. Teens feel things intensely for a reason, as feelings give us quick information about the world and they need to learn quickly about the world if they are going to survive independently. The downside is they can feel swamped by emotions and that can make them feel like they are going crazy. 

Action point: In our book we talk about the ‘snow globe intervention’. When a teen is in an emotional snowstorm, shake the snow globe, place it on the table and together watch the swirling chaos of the flitter falling until the snowflakes settle. Teen emotions will naturally reduce  (and so will yours!) during this time and then, and only then, will they be able to begin to rationalise what went on and help them work it out. 

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They could use your advice, but don’t want to be told what to do

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The science: It’s so frustrating when we can see what someone needs to do but they can’t, isn’t it. We just want to tell them! However, research is showing us that teens need to work things out for themselves. Teens are biologically driven to question what adults say. It is a period of becoming independent and autonomous and their brains are literally telling them to work it out for themselves. This is likely the reason for them doing precisely the opposite of what you are suggesting from putting on their coat when it’s cold to drinking alcohol with their friends. 

Action point: The message is, don’t try and dictate to them. You need to change your interaction so that decisions are co-owned. Discuss the pros and cons of a decision. Ask them what their thinking is. This doesn’t mean giving up control. You do ultimately get to draw a clear boundary and reinforce it, but a teen who has been allowed to give their view is a teen who will more willingly comply. Their brains are starting to work things out for themselves and you have the chance to do this alongside them before they are on their own in the adult world. Use that opportunity. 

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They need environments that stretch them so they can make the most of their incredible teenage brains 

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The science: Much is written about stress and teenagers and many people say we are living in an epidemic of teen mental health problems. The science suggests that we should be stretching teens and expecting lots of them as their brains are primed to learn, but we need to change the narrative around stress for teens. 

Action point: First we need to remind ourselves that anxiety is an important internal alarm system that alerts us to danger. We all have anxiety. It is normal and it keeps us safe. Then we can remember that we, as the adult in their lives, set the context for how they interpret their stress. What we do and say in the context of their stress matters in how they experience it. We can contain their stress or exacerbate it. 

Tell them stress is a sign of human growth. When we are growing we are stressing our system and that is ok. Tell them that those internal signs such as heart pounding, body sweating is a form of useful energy. It gets our body in a peak state for performance. Help them understand that whatever the outcome, you will still be there supporting them and that if it doesn’t go well, it is a learning opportunity. 

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