Stuck at home with teens during quarantine?
Are you a teen yourself? How’s it going? If teens aren’t bored at home you’re probably doing something right. The adolescent brain is particularly opposed to isolation, boredom, the familiar, and all the things we might expect in a quarantine. There’s a few reasons for this.
Adolescence is a high period of neurological pruning. What this means is that the brain chooses what it should keep, and what it should throw out. It’s similar to pruning trees. If we get rid of the excess, the plant can focus it’s energy on healthy growth. This time of neurological organization and optimization means that teenagers are, in general, highly adaptable and flexible… at least from a neurological standpoint. The things experienced in the teen years truly shape so much of our lives, outlook, and activities in adulthood. This period allows for an intense pursuit of creativity and “out of the box” thinking. When we look at major innovations or movements that have happened throughout history, much of this was sparked in adolescence. Teenagers can solve the world’s problems in immensely unique ways.
Rapid Changes with a brain that is not fully developed
With that said, the anatomical, hormonal, and other biological changes happening in the teenage brain are extensive. The frontal lobe is not fully developed in teens. That’s the part of our brain that manages impulse control, helps us make good decisions, and runs our executive functions (think planning, seeing the long term implication of choices.) Teens often rely on their limbic systems to make decisions which is the part of our brain that is more instinctive (think of how a reptile makes decisions verses a monkey.) Let’s be real, all adults act this way at times and the outcome is often unfortunate. We should expect that teens make impulsive, reckless decisions because their current brain design. We should also expect them to have increased emotional variance (think roller coasters.) The teen brain often does not have the capacity to handle the high highs, or the low lows that they are experiencing for the first time and that makes them particularly vulnerable to depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges. This is where parents and other caring adults come in. The hope is that OUR brains are more developed… regardless of whether you feel it or not, your brain has more robust skills to manage stress and emotional challenge than your teens does. While the relationship with their parents will change, research indicates that most teens desperately want to increase empathetic, supportive connections with their parents. In order to explore (and change) the world like their brain is designed to do, teens need to know that they can return to a secure, present, empathetic caregiver when problems arise. This gives them strength to leave their known to explore the unknown. If a trusting relationship is there, this also allows them to rely on YOUR frontal lobe and long term thinking. Their mind literally syncs with yours and learns from the experience. You can help them explore the long-term implication of choices and their mind is all the better for it.
The strength of the adolescent brain translates to immense courage. Teens can imagine the world to be different, better, and more whole and they believe they can achieve it. Teens, literally, are wired to overhaul the norm and make this world a better place. This exploration might mean that they fight against your rules if you’re rigid or authoritarian BUT it also might mean that they have the hope, initiative, and valor to change what adults perceive as hopeless.
Driven towards dopamine
The drive for dopamine increases in the teenage brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that fires up when we experience new, novel, and exciting. This new and novel drives teenagers into the pursuit of new passions, lifelong dreams, and often “out of the nest.” This biological change doesn’t mean that they don’t love their family, this means that they are driven to make new connections and find support outside of their parents and family unit. This can often be a scary time for parents because the relationship is shifting and changing. Teens will regularly become very depressed or anxious if they cannot spend time with their friends or are required to go on a family vacation. Another outcome is that drive for novelty means that teens engage in the risk-taking behavior that is often associated with adolescence. As they look for the new and novel or experience peer pressure from new social connections, teens may engage in ways we’d hope they avoid. One solution to this is to help your teen become engaged in activities they are passionate about. Expose them to new and novel career options. Help them understand more about the world. Take them to new places and calm your own anxiety when they don’t want you as much as they want their friends.
1- They need healthy, empathetic, and supportive connections with adults who (hopefully) have a more fully developed brain.
a. This period may be profoundly depressing or anxiety provoking to teens who have little awareness of their emotions and limited ability to deal with them. Connect with them and offer support.
b. Before you move to authoritarian rules, share with them that you know this is hard and help them understand the long-term implications of their actions. Tell them it’s okay that this is hard and their emotions will not always feel this way. After they’ve shown an emotion, give a few minutes to sit with them in the emotion and then offer some calming techniques.
c. Play games as a family, find ways to laugh, throw dance parties, or watch a funny show together
2- Help them to find ways to connect with and care for their friends in this time.
a. Teens find immense strength in caring for their friends. Help them find ways to check on them and offer support.
b. Help your teens connect virtually with their friend group and encourage them to laugh and connect
3- Increase healthy dopamine opportunities
a. Help them find a way to become part of the solution to the viral crisis (making facemasks, sending encouraging notes to healthcare workers on the frontlines, fostering a pet, checking on their neighbors or encouraging them to create a neighborhood care team)
b. Help them to learn new things or explore an educational area that they’re passionate about (think art, literature, science, humanitarian)
c. Find something to be excited about every day. This may be climbing something on a daily hike, having a daily family challenge, buying a plant to put in the house. Get creative about how you feed those dopamine receptors!
Offer grace and compassion! Just as we all need this, our teenagers need this too! If you feel that your teen is struggling, reach out to a counselor or other professional for help. They’ve never been through something like this and are doing the best to make sense of their world.
Want to read more about the adolescent brain? Check out these resources below: