We have a special guest series of blogs from Dr John Coleman on parenting teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This blog focuses on the teenage brain during this critical time of development for young people and the impact lockdown may be having.
Major change: The teenage years are a time of major change in the brain;
New developments: Most areas of the brain are maturing and developing during these years;
It takes time: This process is likely to start around puberty, but takes many years to complete;
Ages and stages: We have learnt that, while the major changes take place in early to mid-adolescence, the brain continues to change and develop until the mid-twenties;
Restructuring: During these years there is some restructuring of the brain;
Pruning: As part of this there is some loss of brain cells, to enable the brain to become more efficient;
Uncertainty: As a result, for a period there may be a degree of uncertainty and confusion;
New skills: However, at the same time many new thinking skills are developing, allowing the young person to become more creative and thoughtful;
The social brain: At this time there is rapid development of the social brain, leading to new skills in relationships but also to a preoccupation with the self and how the teenager appears to others;
Hormone variation: Due to brain development there is much greater variation in hormone levels in the teenager than there is in the adult. This can lead to unexpected swings of emotion and to possible difficulty in controlling feelings.
How lockdown may affect the teenage brain
Living in a constricted space may mean that the individual will be getting less exercise than normal. Young people may be sleeping more, as the usual pressures of school are absent. They may also be sitting in front of a screen for long periods. However, the brain needs oxygen. The more we move around, the more oxygen gets to our brains. Lack of exercise means that less oxygen is getting to the brain.
In the present circumstances it is all too easy for routines to disappear. This is understandable, but a day free from routines is not helpful for teenagers. Young people do need routines in the day. Routines contribute to the growth and development of parts of the brain to do with structure and planning.
Young people will be isolated from their friends. This can be difficult to deal with. Contact with others of the same age provides support and is an arena for sharing experiences. It is also valuable for brain function, as it supports the development of the social brain. The internet and social media may help to mitigate the feeling of isolation.
More intense family relationships
Being together in the home will intensify relationships between parents and young people. Conflicts may easily flare up over a range of issues. Some may be over domestic problems, such as use of the kitchen, loud music or time spent in the bathroom. Other conflicts may be more to do with health or lifestyle, such as bedtimes.
Lack of privacy
Being together in lockdown relates also to the issue of privacy. Young people need some privacy at this stage in their lives. This may be hard to provide in the present circumstances, but some thought should be given to the importance of privacy for teenagers.
In normal times young people may find it hard to manage their emotions. Hormone variation plays a part here. During lockdown, living in a small space and cooped up with parents and siblings, emotions will be even harder to keep under control. Teenagers may feel resentment or loss, and some may have higher levels of anxiety. The parts of the brain that regulate emotion may have a lot more work to do at this time.
A sense of relief
It should be noted that some teenagers may be feeling a sense of relief at this time. Being out of school may, for some, provide an escape from the stress created by school, such as tests, pressure from teachers and other possible tensions.
Under the conditions of lockdown it may be hard for young people to remain motivated in relation to school work or to planning for the future.
Top Tips - A Healthy Brain in Lockdown
Plan regular exercise or fitness routines for everyone in the family. If possible, teenagers should move around rather than stay still for long periods. Exercise can happen indoors as well as outdoors. No one should sit in front of a screen for too long. The more exercise and movement the individual engages in the more oxygen will be getting to the brain.
A structure to the day is helpful for young people. If possible, help them create their own routines and structures. This will assist in managing the sense of imprisonment and isolation. Routines will also contribute to the development of parts of the brain related to thinking, planning and problem-solving. Routines also have health benefits, in particular in relation to sleep and nutrition.
Don’t be afraid to talk about feelings. Try and keep everyone’s emotions under review. If there is an opportunity for feelings to be expressed and shared, this will reduce the likelihood of explosions and uncontrolled outbursts. If the young person can be given the sense that their feelings are being recognized and taken seriously this will assist with emotion regulation.
Conflicts within the family may well be heightened when families are thrown together. It will be important to create processes in the family which will help to reduce such conflicts through open communication and acceptance of everyone’s needs. Listening to each other and allowing a space for issues of conflict to be aired will help enormously.
Although parents are likely to believe that teenagers do not want to communicate with them, this is a myth. Teenagers do want to talk, but at times and in ways that feel safe to them. In the present situation communication – especially about worries and anxieties - is absolutely essential. Brain development means that language skills are increasing, and this can be encouraged by open communication.
Parents may be able to provide opportunities for young people to take on more roles in the family, such as looking after younger children, contributing to the domestic chores, and helping in other ways. Such things will give teenagers a sense of responsibility and will help them deal with some of the more difficult emotions.
It is inevitable that the digital world has become more important during lockdown. This fact is just as applicable to adults as it is to teenagers. In view of this normal rules and restrictions on screen time should be relaxed at this time. There is no evidence that sensible use of the internet is damaging to the brain. However, adults in the family do need to keep an eye on what the young person is doing on-line. Open discussion about this is to be encouraged, and parents should be alert to any inappropriate use of the internet.
Research has highlighted the fact that the teenage brain is especially sensitive to rewards. This may seem difficult to put into practice at present. However, the more young people can be motivated by reward rather than criticism the more responsive they will be.
Parents do matter!
Many parents have the view that they become less important as their sons and daughters move into the teenage years. Everything we know tells us that this is untrue. Teenagers do need their parents or other key adults. They just need them in a different way from the way younger children need these important figures. In the present lockdown parents and carers have an essential role to play in helping young people manage this stressful and unprecedented situation. The support, the structure and the role-modelling that is provided by key adults are all important elements in the development of a healthy brain.