Handling Teenagers
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Understanding your teenager
Dr Neil Hawkes

Recently I was travelling to London on the train. I couldn’t avoid hearing an animated conversation between two women fellow passengers who were discussing the challenging behaviour of their respective teenagers. The conversation went something like this:

“I can’t get mine out of bed in the mornings. When I talk to him he usually grunts in reply.”

“Mine’s driving me mad too, she’s either high as a kite with excitement or so morose and sullen I can’t get a word out of her – so moody!”

“I can understand. I was beside myself with worry the other day when the school summoned me to a meeting because of their concerns about his loss of motivation. I was told that if his attitude didn’t improve then he wouldn’t get the necessary grades in his GCSE.”

As I overheard the conversation I felt empathy with the two women. To explain: I have been father to six teenagers so I have had plenty of personal experience, which has often made me think deeply about my ability to parent teenagers successfully. I remember one of mine, who didn’t seem motivated to study telling me, “Don’t worry Dad about my GCSE grades – I’m a genius!” Oh dear, he had to learn the hard lesson that it is consistent and sustained effort that gets the desired results.

Perhaps you too have been, will be, or are parenting a teenager?

The Teenage Brain
Is there help at hand for worried parents and teachers to help them understand and support teenagers in navigating the challenges of adolescence? A resounding, yes! Over the last decade scientists have developed a more comprehensive understanding of the functioning of the teenage brain. There is a growing body of knowledge about what support and information teenagers need so that they can get the most from school, which to them seems overly stressful and demanding.

I was fascinated to discover that it is only in modern times that schools have had to accommodate the challenges of adolescence. Like me, you may be amazed to know that compulsory education for all was introduced as recent as 1870. In 1880 the school leaving age was set at 10 and then increased in 1893 to 11. In 1899 the leaving age was increased to 13, which didn’t change again until 1918 when it was raised to 14. The leaving age remained unchanged until 1947 when it became 15. In 1972 it was raised again to 16. From 2015 teenagers are required to continue in education or training to the age to 18.

Additionally, I would suggest that there are a number of other factors for us to consider when thinking about the implications of the raising of the school leaving age. For instance, since the 1960’s teenagers have been seen as a distinct social group; the focus for comprehensive product marketing – they have money in their pockets. Modern teenagers are now considered to be generally more socially aware (social media) and sophisticated (advertisements) but often without the life skills and knowledge to cope with the demands of life. In comparison, earlier generations were expected, on leaving school at 13 or 14, to take on ‘real life’ responsibilities such as working to make a financial contribution to the home. My own father on leaving school at 14 had to take on the role as a home maker/provider as his own father had died.

Helping Mental Well-Being
Without overcomplicating matters, I invite you to consider one other major factor now facing modern youth; that is the increasing concern about their mental well being. Paul Burstow MP, chair of Centre Forum’s commission on mental well being, warned that on average about three children in every classroom experience mental health problems.

So, we can begin to appreciate that the teenager of 2015 is faced with the demands of earlier maturity; increasing academic and social demands leading to a cocktail of complexity and potential mental stress, unknown by earlier generations.

What can we do to help? In a school setting, how can parents and staff support students to nurture all aspects of themselves, whilst managing the challenges of adolescence? I think the key is to create a climate for living and learning based upon sustaining mental well being for all. To do this the school will reinforce positive character traits such as resilience, determination, courage and compassion – in a process I term Values-based Education (VbE). From my experience, one of the best ways to help students maintain a sense of well being is to teach them about how during adolescence their brains are being reconstructed! They then are able to see that the feelings and thoughts they are having are designed by nature to help them to break away from their families in preparation for setting up their own homes. They learn that no longer will they think with their pre-adolescent brains, which were relatively stable.

Hormonal Changes and Neurochemistry
Instead, they have to contend with a number of years of massive hormonal and other chemical changes. When I have been invited to Australia, I have had the privilege to work with Andrew Fuller, the renowned clinical psychologist. Andrew’s work is powerfully helping to reshape education in Australia. Incidentally, I recommend his latest book Tricky Teen’s which you can access from here.

Andrew describes the reasons why so many teenagers find life challenging and gives lots of ideas to support families and schools.

I learned from Andrew that emotions rather than reason rule the teenager’s brain; chemicals in the brain powerfully influence the emotions. This results in a part of the brain called the limbic system being more quickly activated in the teenager’s brain. We learn that generally, most adults control themselves with the help of the area at the front of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) – the part that says, don’t do it , think first. However in the teenager the PFC is often not in control. To strengthen the PFC both in students and adults I recommend the practice of mindfulness and reflection. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of the processes of your mind. Research has shown that two main behaviours will affect the development of our PFC; therefore our ability to be in charge of ourselves; that is secure parent child attachment and the practice of mindfulness. If as babies/small children we have not bonded with our parents and feel secure then we will find it difficult to attach (have a positive self- image) with ourselves. Therefore, if you have a child at home, ensure they know that they are loved for who they are despite their behaviours. Actively encourage regular periods of silence and reflection. Reflection is, I believe, one of the most important skills to learn as its practice strengthens the effective working of the PFC, giving us a greater mental clarity and capacity for self-awareness

As teachers and parents we need to be what Andrew Fuller calls ‘moodologists’ – experts at changing moods. However, we can't help an adolescent change an intense emotion such as fear or anger unless we invite the brain to change its neurochemistry. It helps when adolescents understand that they can be subject to the influence of powerful chemicals some of which they often need less, such as Adrenaline and Cortisol and encourage preferable ones such as Dopamine and Serotonin.  

Achieving Balance
Adrenaline, which is the fight or flight drug and helps with survival, gives a teenager an adrenaline rush. This may come about if they feel humiliated in front of friends. As adults we often try too quickly to control their behaviour, but this is a waste of time until they’ve reduced the amount of adrenalin in their body. Door slamming hyper-activity with lots of shouting is a good indicator of high adrenalin levels. If your child behaves in this way it is important to remain as ‘cool’ as you can. Wait until they have calmed down before talking to them. Unfortunately, Cortisol, the stress hormone, gets released with Adrenaline. Being stressed and hyper is a potent cocktail. Cortisol affects our ability to put thoughts into words and can affect memory too.  This explains why teenagers often can’t explain their actions or thought processes; why they reply in short phrases or grunts as the woman in the train experienced with her son’s behaviour.  

Instead of being in situations that flood the teenage body with Adrenalin and Cortisol we want them to have a balance of the happiness chemicals: Dopamine and Serotonin. Dopamine levels lower during adolescence, hence why perhaps the woman on the train was summoned to school because her son seem to have lost his motivation. Exercise is great for raising levels of dopamine, as is a balanced diet and appropriate social interaction. Serotonin is the most powerful of all antidepressants. Teenagers often have low levels, which is why they often see life as less pleasurable and are prone to being grumpy.  Serotonin is the quiet achiever - the slow high and accompanies calm, considered decision-making. 

Points to remember: caffeine (in coffee) and aspartame (in fizzy drinks) reduces Serotonin. Teenagers thirst for and benefit from positive feedback, support, love, humour, fun, exercise and opportunities for social interaction.  

Wow! I hope you now feel inspired to find out more about how you can support teenagers and in so doing help them to help themselves. I hope too that I have shown that teenagers require a lot of patience from us and that our role is to create the best conditions both at home and at school to enable our teenagers to develop all their capacities and talents.

Dr. Neil Hawkes, D. Phil (Oxford), FRSA
Founder of the International Values-based Education Trust (IVET)