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How neuroscience can help families talk to their teens

In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki Shotbolt and Geraldine Bedell spoke to clinical psychologist Dr John Coleman about his new book, ‘The Teacher and the Teenage Brain’, and how greater understanding of adolescent brain development can help parents support their teens online. 

Unravelling teen behaviour

The teenage years can be challenging – for parents as much as for teens themselves. Parent-child communication can be (shall we say) “tricky” during this period – but when you consider that the brain changes more during the teenage years than at any other time of life, apart from the first three years, perhaps this is highly understandable. 

“There are so many aspects of teenage behaviour that are a puzzle,” says Dr Coleman. This problem is compounded by the lack of support and information for parents, “something that can contribute to a much better understanding between parents and teens”.

Dr Coleman’s new book sets out to explain some of the developments going on inside teen brains, to help parents unravel their behaviour and provide them with the right support.

The power of reward

“Everyone knows teenagers have raging hormones,” says Dr Coleman, but advancements have shown that this isn’t only relevant to teenagers’ sexual development. 

Dopamine – the “reward” hormone – is particularly influential, as there are more dopamine receptors in adolescent brains than adult brains. Teens are therefore more influenced by reward, which can impact – and explain – how they interact with and process platforms like social media, where posts are “rewarded” with likes. “We need to think seriously about the sort of support this age group needs… to be able to stand back and explore what's happening to them, and develop that media awareness and resilience.”

It’s also important that parents understand “how important rewards are for young people, and think about how they relate to their son or daughter in this way.” Understanding that they are inclined to seek out endorsement, recognition and encouragement can help parents rethink how they communicate with and motivate their teenagers. This can transform family dynamics, from “hostile” to empathetic and collaborative.

Developing “command and control”

Parents can also use knowledge about their teen’s developing brain to help them when it comes to navigating the digital world. “The more [the prefrontal cortex] is encouraged to develop and mature, the more young people will have the capacity to withstand the pressures of hormones - especially in the case of social media - like dopamine that push you towards seeking instant rewards.”

The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s “command and control centre”, responsible for reasoning and problem-solving. Crucially, Dr Coleman explains, it matures a little more slowly than other parts of the brain. There are lots of things parents can do to help it develop: encourage teens’ curiosity, expand their intellectual horizons, encourage decision-making and discussion of tricky issues. Dr Coleman also recommends encouraging proactivity, for example playing games where negotiation with other players is key. 

Read a blog by Dr John Coleman about the teenage brain here

Risk-taking teens

Risk-taking is another typical teenage trait. Teenagers are “notoriously bad at thinking about consequences” and as a result are naturally high risk-takers – particularly, studies have shown, when surrounded by their peers. 

Again, neuroscience has the explanation. “In order to think about consequences, you've got to have links between different areas of the brain… but some of these areas in young people are still very immature.” Recognising this can help adults understand why teens sometimes behave in a risky or unsafe way – as well as help teens understand it themselves, boosting their emotional literacy and wellbeing. 

"Parents really matter"

When it comes to navigating life online, teens’ aptitude for risk-taking, susceptibility to dopamine “hits” and the influence of their peer group can add up to a “perfect storm”. Dr Coleman agrees that “the online world plays into the vulnerabilities young people have” – but again explains that parents can make a big difference simply by taking an active interest in their teens' online lives. “The young person who is susceptible to addiction and spending too much time online... hasn't got that support, hasn't got adults asking questions, taking interest, adults providing other rewarding activities and opportunities.”

While understanding teens’ brain development can help explain some of their behaviour – it’s important to remember that context and circumstances also have a role to play, and that this is something parents can actively influence. Dr Coleman hopes his book will “help parents understand that these meltdowns and ups and downs are not directed specifically at them, but are part of the process of the changing brain during these years.” 

Above all, Dr Coleman wants “more information, more support for parents, and just to get this message across: that parents of teens really matter.”


Listen to episode 3 of Tech Shock, season 2: "How brain science can help with parenting teens"

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