On Vitality

The neuroscience of creating vitality

Parenting and the Amazing Teen Brain, Part 3

A psychiatrist's tips for facilitating healthy brain development for your teen

In the previous articles on the teen brain (Part 1 and Part 2), I introduced you to the arc of brain development from child to teen to adult. The majority of teen behaviors can be understood (maybe not enjoyed, but understood) if we keep in mind that these behaviors are rooted in healthy development.  Age 12-25 is a time of massive brain reorganization. So, what can you, as a parent, do to help your teen develop in spite of these challenges?

With hugs, happiness, and exercise, you can bathe your child’s brain with extraordinary chemicals:

  • Oxytocin (boosted by touch and a sense of security)

  • Dopamine, Serotonin (‘happiness’ chemicals)  

  • BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which is found in the brain and throughout the body; in the brain, it is essential for learning, memory, and higher thinking. BDNF levels are boosted by aerobic exercise—so teens must exercise! Don’t get caught up in what kind of exercise—anything that gets them moving is better than the couch.  

Try to minimize cortisol (the stress hormone), as it disrupts learning, performance, and memory. Kids have way too much cortisol due to pressure of exams, worrying about college, peer competition, lack of sleep, and constant technological distraction. Strive for empathy with your teens, and recognize they are going through intense struggles to discover and craft their own identities. Teens need to separate from their family of origin and eventually find a partner to create their own family, so when your teen acts like their life depends on what happens with a boyfriend or girlfriend, it actually does to the teen brain!

Set the frame, and let them explore. You may want to think of yourself as a marshmallow on the outside with a backbone of steel on the inside. Love and embrace your kids, but at the same time let them know what is NON-NEGOTIABLE in your household. Problems often show up around curfews, peer pressure (drugs and alcohol), sex, reckless behavior, and mood swings, and many psychiatric issues arise or intensify during this period.  Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse often begin during the teen years. This is a VERY HIGH RISK TIME. Early intervention is KEY!

Keep the teen brain stimulated with a broad range of healthy experiences.  Keep them in school or in another form of massive brain stimulation as long as you can. Where your kids go to college is far less important than whether or not your kids go to college! Graduate schools take advantage of the prolonged plasticity and turns young adults into super experts.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Much of behavior is heritable, but parents CAN have an impact. Alignment with teen neurobiology optimizes everything—daily family life, academic performance, etc. Experience is best teacher for many things, but not all things. There really are times you can provide a wise shortcut. Parents can still try to control the basics, which are always important, but even more so during these years of massive brain reorganization.

The good news is that although problems can arise quickly, so can solutions. During the teen years, you are helping them pave superhighways that will be very hard to remove in adulthood. Focus on the paths that you want to last a lifetime. This will vary from family to family, but continue to emphasize the family’s core values: education, kindness, curiosity, creativity, and spirituality.

 

Eva Ritvo, M.D. is vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Miami and co-author of The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful.

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