Making Sense of the Terrible Teens

The idea of dealing with adolescents can often be daunting for parents and educators. We'd like to reframe how we think about teenagers. Read on...

By Poonam Desai, Ph.D., LSSP, Mental Health Trainer | Oct 10, 2016

The idea of dealing with adolescents can often be daunting for parents and educators. You may love them, but there is no question this group represents a challenge to many adults who work with them. Their reasoning abilities may seem murky, at best, and nonsensical, at worst. Their desire for thrills often leads to apparently impulsive decision-making and actions. Your ability to connect with them may seem to be a lost cause- a case of two diametrically opposed nemeses.

Media, on multiple levels, does not help this perception. TV shows and movies often portray teens as moody, irritable, distant from family, caring more about their peers, and quick to go down “bad” paths.

What we’d like to offer here is a reframe of adolescence. Here are 3 big ideas that we hope will make your time and work with adolescents more impactful.

Big Ideas:

1. The Adolescent Brain: As you may or may not know, the brain is constantly changing and is “plastic” as scientists and researchers call it. The adolescent brain continues to develop, but a major part of the brain, the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) is not fully developed until the end of adolescence (approximately age 25 or 26). The PFC is responsible for “adulting" skills, such as response inhibition, emotional control, planning, organizing, managing time, and persisting with goals until they are met (Guare, Dawson, & Guare, 2013). We’d love for our adolescents to have these skills, but we must understand their brains likely do not have this capacity just yet. In the meantime, while theirs are growing, adolescent brains need the support of adults’ PFCs. You may have to remind that fourteen-year old about their homework or chores 10 times, but know that these reminders and your modeling of effective executive functioning skills are helping their PFC to grow.

If you have an adolescent in your life, you need to understand the role of Dopamine!  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that is released when we are engaged in pleasurable activities. Dopamine is also an essential part of our brain’s reward system that drives us toward certain behaviors. Generally speaking, research indicates adolescents’ baseline levels of dopamine are lower than most children and adults; however, their system is wired to release more dopamine when they are engaged in an enjoyable or thrilling activity. This is the “rush” often described, in concert with adrenaline, that makes novel or risky activities so exciting, and keeps adolescents coming back for more. So, sneaking out, jumping off that precariously built structure, trying different substances, experimenting with intimacy- all these activities are highly rewarded by the adolescent brain. And while most adolescents may be able to articulate exactly why these might be bad ideas, the rewards, in their minds, far outweigh the risks. This does not mean we can’t teach adolescents about good decision-making, using techniques like mindfulness; it does mean we need to understand the way adolescent brains are wired so we do not blame them for a perfectly normal dopamine system.

2. Attachment/ Trauma: Attachment is a critical concept for infants and toddlers (see posts on Attachment), but it also has important implications for adolescents. Attachment patterns are often established early in life, but they can be shaped over time through consistent relationships with others and new attachment patterns are set all along our lifespan. Adolescents may look for critical relationships in adults outside of their primary caregivers and may “test” these relationships to understand the limits of an adult’s supportiveness. This is important: teens want to know how much you care, even if they say they don’t want be near you!

Trauma can impact attachment relationships, and make it more difficult for children and adolescents to connect with others, but this makes your relationship with this adolescent so important. Safe and supportive relationships outside of parenting figures are very important to helping an adolescent remain connected and grounded in values and in developing their character.

3. Shifting Social Needs: Adolescents are preparing for independence and begin to move away from their childhood patterns. It becomes more important for them to distance themselves from their families and gain a stronger foothold in a society of their peers. After all, their peers are the ones with whom they will transition to adulthood and find new and better ways of handling life’s many situations. Parents may be hurt by the tendency for their adolescent to shut them out, but must remember their teen is moving toward adulthood. At the same time, adolescents may seek advice from non-parenting adults. This gives educators and mental-health professionals a special role in possibly providing guidance to adolescents in a way that fosters and models interdependence between the generations.

Keeping these big ideas in mind, our reframe posits that there are purposeful reasons that teens act the way they do. When interacting with an adolescent in the coming weeks, try to keep these points in mind and see how it shifts your perspective on them.