COVID 19 has affected each of us in different ways, while in self isolation. For families with teenagers you may be experiencing an increase in push back about the “rules”, high emotions that seem to come out of the blue or watching them make breakfast for lunch, and finding the wifi extremely wobbly at times.
If you are working and managing school schedules quarantine could really be testing your fortitude.
What is actually going on in my teenager’s brain? Their body seems fully developed and their brain has to catch up. It is one of the reasons adolescents live more in the moment, act impulsively and take risks.
The adolescent brain has an amazing capacity to learn. This is due to the teen brain having more neurones and excitable synapses (grey matter) than it ever will again. It is like having an overgrown hedge of grey matter. The brain begins to prune the hedge when puberty begins and continues until your teen is 25 to 30 years of age. This pruning happens during sleep and is why teenagers need 9 to 10 hours of sleep each night.
Signals in the brain pass through what is called the myelin sheath (white matter), a protective fatty layer protecting the neurones in the brain. In adolescents this layer is about 80% developed where signals take longer to move around the prefrontal cortex where judgment, decision making, inhibitory control, assessing danger, empathy, understanding consequences, and goal setting all take place.
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Think of white matter as the brain’s wifi system. If the wifi signal is weak and you’re online streaming your signal gets stuck causing you start to lose interest in the show or the plot. This is why quick decision making can be challenging in teens and why situations can go from being awesome to out of control in a matter of seconds. When you ask your teen “What were you thinking?” the answer is, they were not.
The limbic brain, referred to as the seat of emotions and the cross roads of the brain is fully developed in the adolescent. This is where the amygdala are located. The amygdala are the oldest part of the brain and their main concern is survival. When we are under “perceived threat” the amygdala activates our body’s stress response. The overly excitable adolescent brain combined with increased hormone secretion and the lack of rational brain development is like driving a car with a fully functioning gas pedal and a half-installed set of brakes.
This leads to adolescents craving intense experiences be it; social media, extreme sports, romantic relationships, experimenting with drugs. Combine this with the fact that adolescent brains have more dopamine and cannabinoid receptors than adults, it is easier for teens to become addicted to substances or form unhelpful longer-term habits.
The way the adolescent brain works is amazing and it does not set up excuses for them. Our understanding of their brain helps us to help them on their road to adulthood.
How does this impact us during quarantine you ask?
Your adolescent is used to having a certain amount of freedom and time away from the family when they are at school. They might feel like they are under a microscope in our current situation. Teens are social and their relationships with peers and other adults helps their development.
Remember, their brain is all about individual survival and pleasure seeking.
Below is a list of tips for getting the most out of quarantine with your teen. If you have an adolescent that is showing signs of depression, seems overly concerned with COVID or is cutting themselves off from friends or you suspect substance abuse, seek professional help.
- TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF! Give everyone time to not be productive. It gives the brain some time to reset and that is when we can access our creativity and ponder life itself.
- STRUCTURE. Humans need some form of routine. It is what relaxes the amygdala in the limbic brain and the teenagers is already super charged. Work with your teen to support them setting up routines for themselves.
- FUN & CONNECTION. Schedule time for fun and social connection everyday. Adolescents are tribal and they need to check in with their tribe regularly which will keep the dopamine receptors happy and fed. Ask them what they think is reasonable.
- FAMILY TIME. Give everyone the opportunity to suggest some family activities with no judgements. Set the ground rules ahead of schedule about phone use during family time.
- SLEEP. Now is your chance to help them get those 9 hours of sleep. Allow your teens to sleep as long as possible before online classes begin.
- CHORES. Use this opportunity to teach them how to cook, include them in housework and yard work and do not expect them to be as thorough as you are. These are teaching moments, not pressure moments.
- RELAXATION & REFLECTION. To truly switch off and let the amygdala really rest, I suggest practicing a form of meditation. It can be Sophrology, Mindfulness or other meditation practices. This time off helps us be more creative, solve problems quicker, strengthens our immune system and can smooth out the release of hormones and emotions.
- EXERCISE. The dopamine and endorphins that are produced from exercise are the only drugs your body really needs. You can make this a fun little competition or it can be a ritual family walk after dinner, a bike ride, hula hooping, use the stairwell in your apartment building and see how long it takes it to you climb the equivalent of a nearby mountain peak, skip, set up an obstacle course, With exercise it is just like Nike says “Just do It”!
If you are a parent with teenage children, perhaps you find this article helpful. Join my events for in depth solutions to finding a new sense of harmony and balance while re-connecting with your teenage child.