We spoke to Nicola Morgan, The Teenage Brain Woman, about what parents can do to support their children through this tricky period. Nicola is a teen brain expert, public speaker and the author of many books, including Be Resilient: How to Build A Strong Teenage Mind for Tough Times, Body Brilliant – A Teenage Guide to a Positive Body Image, and The Teenage Guide to Stress, winner of a School Library Association Award.
Insight to the adolescent brain
For parents, knowledge about what is happening to their teen’s brain is the first step in understanding how they feel, and helping them through successfully.
Nicola states that this stage of life is best understood in terms of separation. The dependent, protected child eventually has to be an independent, unprotected adult. The teenage brain is programmed to separate from parental control, trust and protection but the parent brain is still programmed to protect. This explains why it’s common to experience conflict, with antagonism and boundaries pushed, as well as insecurity and anxiety. Young people want to follow peer pressure rather than parental wishes.
To complicate matters, at the same time the brain’s prefrontal cortex – controlling reason, self-control and prediction of consequences – is still developing and won’t be fully formed until the mid-late 20s. But the emotional centre – the amygdala – is developed and highly activated in teenagers. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, and aggression.
The result is young people who are being pushed by their biology and brains to move away – literally and emotionally – from their parents. They are prone to taking risks in order to gain status with their peers, but they don’t yet have the self-control to resist temptations or manage their high emotions.
A parent’s job at this point is to be kind but firm. Being open and available is important throughout their lives, but particularly so in adolescence. Talking with your teen about their developing brain, can help them process their feelings.
The cliché ‘pick your battles’ is overused for good reason when it comes to teens. Messy teenage bedrooms are a symptom of their rebellious and impulsive brains, and aren’t the end of the world. Daily nagging is unlikely to promote good relations. Better to sit in that messy room with them for 30 minutes and try and talk to them about their interests and lives.
Modelling good behaviour for healthy teenage minds
Parents should always model good habits to their children, but it’s particularly important when the tricky teen years hit.
The World Health Organization [WHO] suggests that adopting healthy sleep patterns, exercising regularly, developing coping, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills, and learning to manage emotions will all help adolescents develop good social and emotional habits. Parents can model all of these to their children.
A protective, calm and supportive family environment will help with a smooth adolescence.
Nicola suggests the following:
No phones: Allot regular family time without devices. The most crucial bit of this is that the adults have no phones, too, so that everyone has a healthy break and interaction is encouraged. Don't take a call or look at your phone when your child is trying to talk to you.
Physical activity: Promoting physical activity is important for mental and whole health. If parents do this then children are more likely to engage with it, too. It doesn’t need to be competitive sport – it can be anything from dance, to walks, runs, gymnastics, biking or swimming.
Set achievable targets: For some children, challenging targets are fine but think carefully how you yourself react when you're constantly being asked to do things you can't manage – it's demoralising. Demoralised people give up and can turn to negative behaviours at any age. Parents can show how they achieve targets successfully, and avoid piling pressure on their teenagers.
Anxiety in teens and risk factors for teenage mental health
Most pre-teens and teenagers feel anxious sometimes as a normal reaction to the challenges of adolescence, but some will develop more persistent mental health difficulties during this tricky period in their lives.
The more mental health risk factors adolescents are exposed to, the higher the potential impact on their mental health. Risks include adversity, negative peer pressure, and poor quality of home life. Violence, bullying, harsh parenting and severe socioeconomic problems are recognised risks to mental health.
The WHO states that anxiety (which may involve panic or excessive worry) is the most common emotional disorder among adolescents, with an estimated 3.6% of 10-14 year-olds and 4.6% of 15-19 year-olds experiencing symptoms. Depression is estimated to occur among 1.1% of adolescents aged 10-14 years, and 2.8% of 15-19-year-olds.
Nicola’s advice is to be the ‘cabin crew’ so avoiding catastrophising or reacting in an over-anxious way yourself when things are stressful. Show your teenager how you manage your own stress, how you look after yourself and how you put things into context.
It’s important not to lie or over promise. If you say, ‘I promise nothing bad will happen’, when you can't guarantee this, your teenager knows you're not being honest. You might have done that with a much younger child but you can't do it now. You have to be open about how sometimes you don't know things but that you do have confidence that they will manage.
Teach your teenagers to focus as much as possible on things they can control and as little as possible on things they can't.
Helping teens become more resilient
Headlines tell us that there is a teenage anxiety epidemic following the pandemic. But, according to Nicola, we must remember that it's typical for humans to learn from adversity. We do usually get stronger.
Nicola says that we should ask our teenagers to recognise how much they have learnt from the pandemic and to assess how well they have coped. Encourage them to think about how hard we thought it would be and yet how we did get through. Ask, What did you learn? What would you do differently if something like this happens again? What were the good things?
It's really important to acknowledge that scary things are scary. They don't feel good, so we learn that negative emotions are not actually bad, they are just appropriate feelings when bad, scary or sad things are happening. Life is a mixture of good and bad, happy and sad, exciting and boring and when our life has become a bit out of balance, with too many sad or dark things, the best thing we can do is shift that balance by seeking out happier things, activities or thoughts. Helping young people do that deliberately and consciously is a great lesson and way to help them.
Helping other people helps ourselves, too. Try to get teens to look outside themselves to their friends and the people they see in the community. Is there a way they could help someone else, perhaps by supporting a charity or cause they feel strongly about? It’s best if they find it themselves, which can be hard if they feel down.
Another idea is to plan something fun as a family. Get each family member to choose something and take the lead on making it happen. It doesn't have to be expensive, it could be a long walk, a picnic, a baking competition, or a family movie.
The most important thing parents can do to build their teenager’s resilience is to show that they believe their child can do things. If we do everything for them, we show that we don't believe they can do it. We need to be ready to help if they fall, but not do it for them. Otherwise, their successes are never theirs, but ours, and they continue to believe in their weakness not their strength.
What are the signs that your child needs professional mental health support?
Nicola states the main signs are:
1) Previously good schoolwork, achievements or behaviour suddenly becoming much worse.
2) Losing touch with friends or stopping doing activities they used to enjoy, unless these are replaced with other healthy activities.
3) Significant lack of care for appearance and personal care, such as stopping washing.
If a child is really struggling, Nicola recommends starting by trying to talk to the young person. You can say, ‘I'm worried about you and I hope you can tell me if something is making you sad, worried or anxious. You can write me a note, if that's easier. I will do my best to help you and even if you think there's nothing I can do I can be here to support you.’
Showing kind loving concern rather than over-worry or criticism is important. So instead of asking why they aren’t doing something, which will feel like a criticism, ask, ‘Are you having trouble with such and such?’ This suggests that there's something you can do to help.
If you can't get through this way, asking teachers would be the next step. You could contact a mental health charity or your doctor, although your doctor can't discuss your teenager with you without them being there or without their permission. Or find another trusted adult who your teenager likes and respects who they might talk to. It can be easier to do this than talk to a parent. At this point, don't take offence, it’s just important that they talk to someone trustworthy.
Adolescent problems don’t last forever
Adolescence and its emotional turmoil don’t last forever. While it is now accepted that changes in the brain continue into our mid-20s, our best bet is recognising young people's strengths rather than being over focused on adolescence as a problem period. The more we understand about what they’re going through, the more we can help.