22 Apr 2021

A journey into the teen brain

From Nine To Noon, 11:31 am on 22 April 2021

Parents of teenagers often wonder what has happened to their child's brain.

They may be moody, not understanding or appearing to care about consequences, they may struggle to maintain focus, and may be very self-absorbed! Neuroscience educator and parenting expert, Nathan Wallis says, during adolescence, parts of the teenage brain are "shut for renovations".

He says understanding the changes that are taking place for the adolescent will help parents successfully navigate these important and formative years.

Teenagers generic, teen generic

Photo: 123RF

Wallis tells Kathryn Ryan some kids hit adolescence earlier than others, but it tends to be around the 13-14 age range.

“Pretty much, if you’re living with a teenager, you know when it’s happened.”

The brain and body both go through a transformative time as a child goes through puberty and, while the teenage brain may shut down for that period, it does return better than it was before.

“I always think, don’t judge who your kids going to be as an adult by looking at them in the middle of adolescence because being an adult is all about having a frontal cortex and, during adolescence, that’s shut for renovations. Who they were at 11 is typically much more like who they’ll be like as an adult.”

The frontal cortex is responsible for complex emotions such as empathy which is why we often think of teenagers as being mean.

“It controls their emotions, so rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety will skyrocket during adolescence. It’s that ability to regulate their behaviour, regulate their emotions, focus their attention – all of that is up there in the frontal cortex and that gets shut for three years to get this rewiring done.”

Wallis says the frontal cortex doesn’t completely shut down – it’s open around 10 percent of the time – and parents need to seize those moments to feed and nurture that part of the brain.

“If they have their frontal cortex online and they seem like they’re being reasonable and considerate, then you really want to prioritise that and stop what you’re doing to feed that part of the brain and have a conversation – that’s what’s going to make adolescence be over quicker.”

And conversely, when a teens’ frontal cortex is switched off, a parent shouldn’t get drawn into an argument with them.

“Your own limbic system switches off and then you’ve got two 15-year-olds and every good interaction needs to involve at least on cortex. While theirs is shut, you want to make sure yours stays online.”

That can be a difficult thing to do and Wallis acknowledges that he gets triggered by his teen daughter rolling her eyes at him. However, the best thing to do is to shut up. 

“For me it was. Say a holding statement, turn around and walk away. That’s not the time to have a conversation, when you’ve triggered your own emotional system.”

Another frustrating element about teenagers is many will decide that whatever their parents like is stupid and pick interests or activities their parents actively disapprove of or dislike.

“If they want to talk about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, you might just have to suck it up and have that conversation if that’s the only time they’re going to use strategic thinking and planning and empathy for others – don’t worry about what they’re talking about as long as they’re using those functions.”

Wallis says that if parents decide to set boundaries or rules, particularly in the lead up to an event, it’s best to give them a warning that there will be a conversation before springing one on them.

“If it’s predictable, that really calms the human stress response system. Anything that’s sprung on them, or is novel information arouses that and that’s the opposite of what we want to do.”

Almost every parent will reach a point where they lose their cool with their teenager and it becomes a shouting match, but Wallis says there are some strategies to avoid a blow-up and help them register their irrationality.

“It can register if you do the validation first. Number one is to calm down the brain stem; make them a sandwich or give them five minutes. Number two is to validate their emotions, reflect back what emotion they’re feeling so they’ll listen to you. Number three is to go into problem solving.

“It’s not nagging them because you’ve done steps one and two. If you go straight to number three, it just sounds like nagging and they switch off. In that situation, you’ve got to actively teach the child some strategies for how they’re going to calm down before they lose it – you’ve got to find a time when they’re calm and go through it.”

A thing to remember, Wallis says, is that their bodies are being pumped with either oestrogen or testosterone and they’re literally not their normal selves while they’re going through it.

“They’re deviating from their normal behaviours, they kind of go back to the way they behaved when they were two. It’s still their temperament behind it, but their behaviour is much less considerate of others.”