| Tweens + Teens | Child Health + Development

Primer for Parents: Teen Brain Changes, Normative Developmental Challenges and Emotional Regulation

This article appeared in the August 2009 edition of the Washington Psychologist, a publication of the Washington State Psychological Association.


Most of us who see adolescents and their families in our practices want parents to have skills and knowledge about adolescent development for handling the normal challenges of the teen years. Sure, we can provide parent counseling as part of our treatment. But there is virtually always a time crunch for addressing all of our agenda (and theirs), isn’t there?

My co-author, Jennifer Wyatt, and I wrote this book for parents to help them understand: developmental issues of adolescence; new brain science research which relates to teen moodiness, emotional reactivity and risk-taking; management approaches for 14 of the biggest hot-button issues; and the critical importance of the parent-teen relationship.

We titled our book Getting to Calm because we wanted to underscore the role of emotions in relationships. Neurobiological research helps us understand teen behavior, and it also helps us understand why loving family members can have their buttons pushed and interact in harmful ways.

Around the age of 13 and the beginning of puberty, the structural remodeling of the prefrontal cortex in the teen brain begins. The prefrontal cortex helps make possible the executive functioning skills of planning, reasoning, impulse control and weighing risks and rewards.  In a process called pruning, up to 40% of the neural branches are sloughed off in this region. Despite the elegant brain growth that occurs during the next decade (thanks to environmental experience and the wiring of neurons over time), the brutal truth is that until maturation is complete in the early twenties, cognition and decision making are compromised by this construction project. Furthermore, the role of emotions becomes critical in the understanding of teen behavior, since emotions often trump cognition in any of us—and even more so for teens.

In all humans, the limbic area, and specifically the amygdala, is activated by highly arousing emotional events that trigger fear and anxiety.  Emotional flooding and “fight and flight” reactions can happen even more readily for teens, because they lack the established inhibitory mechanisms which help reign in impulses. Along with sexual hormones and the teen’s super-sensitivity to dopamine, a lot of extra fuel can be added to the fire of teen emotions. The dominance of neuronal activity in the emotional region of the brain during high arousal situations has been called an “amygdala hijack.”

Neuroscience research helps explain why really good teens can still seem rather brainless on a random Saturday night. When a teen forgets to call home, jumps into a friend’s car with a six pack, gets a tattoo without permission, or runs out the door when the parent says “no” to something, it helps to know about the “amygdala” hijack. It doesn’t excuse, but it does help to explain. It also helps parents understand why they need to “get to calm” and cool down their own emotions, so that they can access their thinking brains and choose productive ways to approach and manage their teen.

Melt downs happen in perfectly ordinary families who lack mental disorders or significant psychosocial stressors. Add a few risk factors, and the probability increases that there will be emotional dysregulation,  communication problems, and more complicated teen difficulties. Parents will need even more support for their own emotional self control and shrewd choice of parenting strategies. But even in normal circumstances, most parents need more skills for coping with teen challenges than they had ever imagined.

In Getting to Calm, we cite the great psychologists’ shoulders we stand on when we emphasize the importance of emotional regulation—Gottman, Goleman, Seligman,  and many others. Psychologist readers will recognize principles of cognitive, behavioral, and family systems therapy wending their way through our practical recommendations for handling the tough situations that parents face like sexuality, substance use, rudeness, and disappointing grades. One of the most unique ways we make our points is by providing parent-child scripts, with “process” notes in the side margin. Readers can see how the thoughts and emotions of parents drive what they say and do, thereby influencing the outcome of an interaction. This teaching method was used in our two other parenting books (The Seven Year Stretch:  How families work together to grow through adolescence; The Launching Years:  Parenting strategies from senior year to college life), and the positive parent feedback we received seemed to indicate that parents benefitted from learning about meta-cognition and interpersonal “process” as much as we psychologists did in graduate school!

Although Getting to Calm was written for parent readers, I hope that health providers—especially psychologists—can use it as an educational manual to buttress their own role in supporting families during this wild and wonderful developmental period. Read more and/or order your own copy at www.parentmap.com/gettingtocalm.

Contact information:

Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

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