Teens and parents: a complicated mess

by Tracy E. Hill

Do you have a teenager who loses his or her temper at a drop of a hat? Or your adolescent seems to completely misunderstand what you are saying and a blowup ensues? Do you have a teenager whose emotions run high and low, or he or she seems to get upset about everything, while none of you seem to understand why? Well, there is a reason for all of that.

In my practice, I see many parents and teenagers who come in for what appear to be different issues, but in reality, are two sides of the same coin. Parents come in because they are frustrated with their teenagers. Teens come to see me unsure and often scared of why their emotions are so ragged and fluctuate so rapidly. It is no coincidence that parents and teenagers seem to have a communication gap. But, there is an explanation for this. Each and every time I explain this phenomenon to a parent or teenager, I get the same response: “Is that true?” Well, yes it is. And I’ll explain.

For the past two decades, Dr. Jay Giedd (1999) has been studying the brain development of adolescents, and what he has discovered is quite remarkable. Although the adolescent brain has reached its full size, Giedd discovered that there are extraordinary changes going on inside the brain during teenage years, and it does not stop there. Brain development is still taking place for adolescents well into their early 20s! Giedd and other researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health have learned through studying magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on adolescents that teen brains are going through a huge growth spurt of grey matter and dendrites in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the seat of a teenager’s thought and reason, as well as executive functions such as planning, organizing, logical thinking and judgment. In addition, the PFC is the seat of their conscience, which helps regulate teenagers’ morals and their awareness of themselves and others. Compared to an adult’s, a teenager’s prefrontal cortex is decidedly underdeveloped. At the same time your adolescent’s PFC is exponentially growing, there is a burst of activity in your teenager’s limbic system. The limbic system is the seat of their emotion and controls things such as impulsivity and anger. Two important areas in the limbic system include the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala drives the teen’s emotional responses, and the hypothalamus is the center for the endocrine and hormone systems. While all this growth and development are going on in the teen brain, the pruning process has simultaneously begun, creating a complex process. In the words of a title song by Diamond Rio – it’s a “beautiful mess.”

I liken this whole progression to a beautiful English Ivy garden. Imagine early this spring you look into your garden and notice after a harsh winter that your English Ivy (PFC) has a decidedly dull and lackluster appearance. It (your teen’s PFC) simply has not shown any improvement or growth in the last few seasons. However, with warmer weather and with all the snow we have had, you suddenly realize your ivy (PFC) is growing wildly! Within a few weeks, we get a burst of spring showers (limbic system) and now the ivy (PFC) is competing with weeds (hypothalamus) and unwanted grass (amygdala). What do you do? Well, most of us would sprinkle some weed killer or chemicals and start pulling the weeds and undesired growth (the process of pruning). This process is difficult as the unwanted growth (anger, impulsivity, high and low emotions) compete with the desirable development of the ivy (planning, organizing and conscience). And perhaps, you realize that some of the unwanted plants growing in the garden look pretty and enhance the garden, but they need some shape, so you decide to keep those (blossoming and pruning).

As you can see, the process is complicated and intense. How does this apply to your teenager and what does it look like? Let’s examine the PFC first. There are many ways that teenagers make evident that the PFC is not yet fully developed. One example is how teenagers exercise poor planning and/or organizational skills. Most parents have had their adolescent request a ride to the mall, literally five minutes before saying, “But, I told Lisa I’d meet her there in 10 minutes,” giving no thought to the fact that it may be a few minutes before dinner or some other pre-planned event. The teen is not yet able to make organized, logical plans ahead of time. And using the same example from the conscience perspective, the teenager also seemingly has little regard or awareness of your time, only thinking of himself or herself. What can you do as a parent? First, stay calm. Engaging in combative arguments with your teenager does no good. Secondly, understand that your teenager is not doing this intentionally. Most parents I talk to think and feel like their adolescent is the only inconsiderate and poor planner in the world. But rest assured, most adolescents (and their parents) are going through the same situation. Thirdly, use these opportunities to teach your child the skills he or she needs to learn and develop (pruning process). If adolescents do not utilize the different areas of their brain functions, they will lose the ability to do so in the pruning process. Think of this as pruning back or shaping the ivy as it overruns another area of your garden. You want to keep the ivy, but have it grow and flourish in the right way.

A mother of three teenagers came to see me because she was going “crazy” with last-minute requests for picking up homework supplies, getting rides to various places and many other such demands by her adolescents. The mother was overwhelmed and exhausted. I suggested she implement the 24-hour rule. No rides, no pickups (unless emergencies), no last-minute requests would be honored unless her teenagers requested them 24 hours in advance. This helped the teens use their organizational skills and think about their mother’s time. Three months later, the mother sent me an email that her life was forever changed and her kids seemed to be much more responsible and respectful!

A similar concept holds true for the limbic system. As I said earlier, during adolescence the teenager’s limbic system is having a growth spurt. Emotions (amygdala) and hormones (hypothalamus) run high. Because the teen brain (PFC) has not yet fully developed, the teenager’s limbic system takes over rather than the rational and competent developing prefrontal cortex. This can be seen when your teenager gets angry at the drop of a hat, slams a bedroom door with anger or seems extremely happy in the morning but then comes home dripping with sadness. Part of this is also due to the fact that teens have a very hard time discerning other people’s emotions. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd did extensive research with adolescents and adults, comparing their ability to recognize emotions based on a photograph of an adult. She demonstrated that nearly half the time, teenagers misread “fear” when identifying faces because their amygdala took over rather than their PFC. Yet, 100 percent of the adults clearly identified the emotional state of “fear” when using their fully-developed PFC. So, before you diagnose your teenager with bipolar disorder, realize that for many teenagers this is the normal rollercoaster of emotions that their brains play on them! The hypothalamus runs similarly to the amygdala. Boys have an average of six surges of testosterone every single day during adolescence. By the time they have reached young adulthood (their 20s), boys have more than 1,000 times the testosterone levels in their bodies than they did as little boys (Walsh, 2004). This powerful chemical explains the many complicated facets of teen boys’ territorial nature, aggression and new-found sexual surges. Girls have a surge of testosterone, progesterone and estrogen, which affect the amygdala as well, catering to the rapid fluctuations of emotions. What can you do as a parent? Again, be calm and teach them how to manage their emotions and deal in a more appropriate manner. One example I give to parents is to tell your teenager when he or she is screaming at you “when you’re calm and can talk rationally, come back and we can discuss the situation calmly.” This gives both parent and child the opportunity to calm down and back away from a potentially volatile conversation that gets nowhere fast.

In the end, you should understand that your teenager is not intentionally trying to drive you crazy! The adolescent brain is a work in progress with many unwanted weeds, flash rain storms, hail and lightning, but eventually becomes a beautiful garden filled with healthy English Ivy. |

1) Giedd, J., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N., Castellanos, F., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Paus, T., Evans, A., and Rapoport, J. (1999). “Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study.” Nature Neuroscience, 2 (10), 861-863.
2) Walsh, D. (2004). “Why do they act that way?” NY, Free Press.
3) Yurgelun-Todd, D. (2013, December 15). “Inside the Teenage Brain. One Reason Teens Respond Differently to the World: Immature Brain Circuitry,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/work/onereason.html

Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D. is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania in the GSE Applied Psychology Department. She maintains a private practice in Malvern, Pa., with her dog, Sigmund Freud.