Understanding a teen’s brain
Dr. Mike Teschuk created this image to illustrate how a teen brain prioritizes.
“First thing you’ll notice is the largest lobe is the love lobe,” said Dr. Mike Teschuk, showing an image of how a teen brain prioritizes. “For teenagers, this is the capital lobe. ‘I love my new outfit. I love my girlfriend of two weeks, the latest YouTube video … but not necessarily my parents. Maybe they still do love their parents, but they don’t show it, for sure. You’ll notice, in the smallest corner, is the memory for chores and homework. That’s the smallest part of the teenage brain.”
Teschuk was speaking at a National Council of Jewish Women of Canada event on Feb. 6, held at the Rady JCC’s Berney Theatre in Winnipeg. It offered parents insights and suggestions as to how to best work with their (and other) teens.
Teschuk is a clinical psychologist at the University of Manitoba and with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Besides having parented three adolescents who are now young adults, he has provided clinical services to children, adolescents and parents at the Health Sciences Centre in the department of clinical health psychology for the past 20 years.
According to Teschuk, while addiction to cellphones might be somewhat new, the way a teen brain is drawn to new and different things, and their contempt for authority, has always been present. Knowing this, he said, can help put teens’ odd and/or inconsistent behaviours into perspective for parents, and help them become more effective and empathetic caregivers. Changes that the teen brain goes through can be very intense and overwhelming.
“There is a great little analogy in Ron Clavier’s book Teen Brain, Teen Mind,” said Teschuk. He likens this new, more efficient brain that is emerging to getting a new computer. You get a new computer, it can do so much more than the old one. It takes awhile to get the hang of it, a new operating system. If you’re like me, it can be an intense learning process, sometimes frustrating. Sometimes, you’re overwhelmed. You long for the old computer, because it was more simple. Right? It was more predictable. I think we can feel more empathy for teenagers if we realize that this kind of stuff is happening in the brain.
“These changes create a sense of anxiety and stress. And, though they vacillate, they show signs of more maturity than regression backwards. They don’t want to be treated like a little kid anymore. You get this ambivalence.
“There are interesting studies that show that early to mid teens, when they have to process information and emotional tasks – when you look at the brain with more function and see what’s happening – you see they are using those temporal lobes, the middle of the brain, to process those emotions,” he said. “Eventually, what happens with age is they move into that later stage of adolescence [and] the frontal lobes take over.
“It’s what all parents are waiting for. As the frontal lobes develop, the individual can see into the future more, inhibit their impulsive behaviours, better plan, socialize and make decisions. But remember, this is a work in process,” he cautioned.
Teens become more able to consider hypothetical ideas and are more flexible in their thinking, he said. “You begin to see it by 12, 13, 14 years old – they can consider alternative possibilities. What if there is no God? What if I decide not to continue dance class or hockey … these activities my parents signed me up for when I was 5 years old?”
Teschuk is a big proponent of looking at situations from the other person’s perspective. He said laying down the law and being confrontational does not work well with teens. He suggested instead to take the time to understand why they do things a certain way, and to find a way to work together to create a better outcome. This can be done by asking questions and listening, by dialogue.
“So, how do all these changes impact self-esteem?” he asked. “We know it has a big impact. Research says self-esteem often declines during early adolescence, and then improves again as they get a bit older. The idea is there can be discrepancies between who you are and who you think you should be. [Teens] start to reflect on how they are not the ideal person they want to be. At this stage, teens need a lot of reassurance from us. There is a symbolic kind of transition that has to happen. Like, in our family, the transition from the kids’ table to the grown-ups’ table. Going to the grown-up table is about also having your own views to express.”
According to Teschuk, at around 14 years of age, teens go through a “rejecting stage,” they don’t want to be with their parents at all. They want to pretend they don’t even have parents. But, Teschuk reassured the 100-person audience by way of personal example, his 23-year-old daughter, who went through this stage, now likes to go out for coffee with him – so, these things, too, shall pass. Your kids will not feel the same way at 23 as they did at 14, he said.
As parents, he said, we need to recognize that this is a normal stage of development. You don’t have to argue about it or be upset about it. Your teens will feel the need to reject a lot of the things they had until then taken for granted. They want to be independent, but it’s daunting for them.”
According to Teschuk, parent-to-adolescent connectedness is very important, especially when things are rough. Simply by hanging in there as a parent and showing how much you care has a large impact, he said, acknowledging that this is the most fundamental, yet hardest, thing to do when teens push back. “It’s easy to want to reject them, when someone is making your life very difficult,” said Teschuk. “It’s natural to feel that way, but, being able to hang in there is huge.
“Relationships with adults outside the family are important, too – with teachers, coaches, people in church or synagogue, extended family members – having other trusted adults. School connectedness is super-important, too. Schools offer so much more than academics,” he said. “If teens want to go to school because they’re on sports teams, in a play, or some other engaging activities … follow their lead and support them in those interests. Positive peer environments are important … but, of course, parents can have a role in creating those peer environments. Knowing your teenagers’ friends … and making your house a place where they want to hang out is a great strategy.”
Teschuk offered a couple of other tips. He suggested that parents, when driving their kids around, take the time to talk with their children and to connect with them. Also, he said, talking with them in this way gives the teens the chance to talk without being face-to-face, which can be uncomfortable and stress-inducing. Last but not least, Teschuk said family meals are also a great time to connect.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.