The trouble with teenagers is that they look like men and women, but they actually aren’t yet. We get frustrated with them when they don’t behave in the way we expect. This is because we expect them to behave like adults. The adolescent body develops before the brain, and both stages of development are extremely complex. Want to understand more? Have a read of Andrew Fuller’s Tricky Teens. It’s gold, and explains beautifully what’s going on in the teenage brain. Or rather, what isn’t. 

Andrew Fuller's Tricky Teens ISBN: 9781925048186
Andrew Fuller’s Tricky Teens ISBN 9781925048186

I had a funny text conversation with a young friend of mine who was venting about her 16 year old friend’s Connor’s rudeness (Not his real name). She wanted to organise an extra rehearsal for a show they were in. He declined with the excuse “Like, I have to see a movie! ” My friend Kate (also not her real name) was highly outraged. I was highly amused. “Typical mid adolescent male behaviour” I explained to her, “you’ve just gotta love it!” 

Rational thought is a non-event

Rational thought is a non event in most adolescent brains. This is because the capacity for rational thought is actually not there in the brain – yet. The frontal lobe where rational thought is processed, is starting to develop, unfolding like a flower. But like the bud of a flower, it’s not a flower yet, the petals still need to unfold. 

Adolescents live in the here and now and in an emotional state. Everything is emotion and hormones: Amygdala and Pituitary. Executive thinking is still anywhere between 5 – 10 years away. It’s like asking a baby to run a marathon, or asking a toddler to quote Shakespeare verbatim. Good luck with that. 

I’ve had arguments with deputy principals who have demanded to know from kids “what were you thinking?” or assert to me that the kids “knew what they were doing”. Um, no, they didn’t. Andrew Fuller asserts that “most tricky teen behaviour is not the product of conscious thought”. 

The hippocampus might be working, so the short term memory is there. But the amygdala gets in the way, so any action from an adolescent is based on emotion and impulse, usually defensive impulse. Knowledge or understanding is never in the equation. Don’t waste your time asking them “what were you thinking?” They don’t know. They don’t even understand the question. Interestingly, they may not even have any recollection of what they have done. Also interestingly, they may not have had any control over their reactions, that was all driven by the neurochemicals in their brain.

Two things you can change

While you can’t change the processes involved in the internal development of the adolescent brain, there are two external factors you can change. Change your understanding and change the environment. 

Change your understanding

Adolescents are not Adults – yet

First, change your understanding by recognising that adolescents are not adults yet. The thinking processes adults take for granted are still in the development stage for adolescents. Be assured though, that those thinking processes will develop in time. In almost 20 years of teaching I have seen many tricky teens who have all grown up into fine adults within ten years. I highly recommend Andrew Fuller’s Tricky Teens, especially his chapter on Neurochemistry and Habit. In this chapter he helps you to understand how four key brain chemicals: adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine and serotonin, influence your adolescents’ behaviour. A better understanding of how these chemicals influence brain function can give you a better understanding of why your adolescent is behaving the way they are. 

Cortisol is very interesting. Cortisol is a hormone that is released when stressed. It lowers language function and also memory. This is why some kids sent down to the principal’s office to explain their behaviour or go head to head in an argument with their parents, can’t recall what they did, and can’t even get their words out. Yelling at anyone to explain themselves when cortisol levels are raised is a pointless exercise, but never more so for adolescents. 

Change the environment

Predictable routines and rituals

Second, change the environment. There is a lot to be said for the calming effect of predictable routines and rituals that then become habits. A lot of my behaviour management training focuses on setting predictable routines and habits because of the calming effect this has on learners, and I have seen for myself the extraordinary impact a predictable starting routine has on regulating behaviour. Andrew Fuller also encourages predictable routines in ‘Tricky Teens’ . He outlines a morning routine in his chapter ‘ Ideal Day’ that uses a system known as backward chaining. He outlines seven steps from waking up in the morning at 7:00am to leaving for school by 8:20, but starts with training getting out the door to go to school first instead of last. 

Take the time to Understand

Investing the time into developing and understanding what is going on in your adolescent’s head can have a huge impact on how you respond to them. Anger and frustration could easily dissolve into detatched amusement when you recognise that their capacity to react rationally hasn’t developed yet. Changing the environment by supporting your adolescent with regular rituals and routines can help regulate their brain function as well. 

So getting back to our adolescent friend and his response: “like, I have to see a movie”. Unexpected change in routine, resulting in a rise in adrenaline led to an emotional outburst as a response. But it was over almost as soon as it happened. My friend was considerably calmer after coming to understand where our adolescent friend was coming from and she became more patient with future interactions.