For generations, parents have shaken their heads over the questionable decisions teenagers make. Some write off their teens’ behaviour as brainless, but Caroline Buzanko has a different perspective.
As a child psychologist, Buzanko is fascinated by the teenage brain, calling it powerful yet vulnerable as it navigates a developmental disparity. We spoke with Buzanko to find out how parents can help their teens navigate the sometimes tricky stage.
Laurel Gregory: What are some of the changes happening to the teen brain that influence behaviour?
Caroline Buzanko: Every brain is different but especially between 16 and 19, the brain is very vulnerable and there’s lots going on. There’s a decrease in serotonin, which is our feel-good chemical, there’s a decrease in the dopamine, which is our motivation, so the brain is getting easily bored.
In this time, at the same time, the reward centres are activated, so teens are actually wanting novelty. They are seeking out new adventures, new experiences, those sorts of things. So with the decrease in dopamine and the serotonin, that really makes a difference. Behaviourally, what happens is they become more irritable. They are pushing away from parents because they do want some autonomy.
They’re also under a lot of stress. There’s stress hormones that are increasing that make their stress unmanageable. They’re not able to cope with that stress. So these are a lot of things that are happening with the brain.
LG: What are some of the misconceptions parents might have about the teenage brain?
CB: Parents are always saying, ‘Ahh hormones are affecting their behaviour.’ But we really know it’s not the hormones. Certainly the brain, it’s the first time they are experiencing the hormones and so they don’t necessarily know how to manage those but it’s really the levels, the feel-good levels of chemicals, that are decreasing in the brain that are affecting those mood swings and the irritability and those sorts of things. It’s not the hormones.
The other thing I hear a lot from parents is, ‘My child isn’t motivated. He just needs to pull up his socks. She just needs to get her work done.’ It has nothing to do with their laziness. They are trying hard. Teens want to do good if they can. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of expectations. They have a lot of stress and there just aren’t really the structures and supports to help them manage all of the expectations and stress, especially in high school when they are trying to figure out what they are going to do past high school. It’s just a matter that they don’t have the coping mechanisms to support them and the brain structure to help meet the expectations.
LG: When does that form, the ability to cope with the pressure and make decisions? Is that executive function?
CB: It is. The frontal lobe is the executive functioning piece. We’re finding for girls – in typically developing girls without any kind of diagnoses – late adolescence, early 20s. For boys we are finding later, even into their 30s, so it can be quite difficult, coping with all of these demands. Especially as they go into high school when we expect them to know when their homework is due and handing it in and everything else, they have to start doing, working and driving. It becomes really difficult for them.
LG: How does this phase affect behaviour?
CB: Well, this part of the brain, the frontal lobe, it’s the very last part of the brain to develop. It’s the judgement. Judgement is the very last thing. Even if they have the capacity to think rationally, and to try to think through their decisions, what’s happening is there is no connection through the rest of the brain to the front rational-thinking part of the brain and so they are not able to obviously see risks adults are able to see. Adults can use different parts of the brain to obviously recognize that’s not a good decision. It’s not so obvious for teens.
That’s one piece. The second piece is, they are driven by emotion. They are driven by whatever is happening in the moment, so if there is another friend who is doing something funny, they don’t even have a second thought. They are in there with their friends. Context is really important. Part of that too – even just the anticipation of having fun or the anticipation of something new and exciting – is enough for them to not think about the risks. And actually, they are driven not by the risks. Behaviours are driven by the anticipation of whatever the reward is – the thrill, the rush, the excitement. And if other friends are doing it, it is so much easier to get caught up in the excitement without them being able to think about what those risks are.
LG: What’s the best piece of advice you give to parents navigating this right now?
CB: The first thing parents need to do is really educate themselves. What is going on with the teenage brain? There’s certainly videos on YouTube, even just sitting down, ‘You know I saw this video on YouTube. Let’s just sit.’ A five-minute clip that you’re sitting together and watching with your teenager. That’s certainly part of the education piece. But the most important, I think at the end of the day, is being able to collaborate. It’s reflective listening, showing empathy with your teenager. Having that sort of relationship where they know that they can come to you with whatever it is and you’re not going to advice give or solutionize or nag or fix things.
I think that’s kind of the step one, to be honest. It’s working on that relationship and collaboration so then there are opportunities to share together and learn together and problem solve together.