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Understanding adolescents: Newbury teacher offers advice on appreciating teens

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Teacher Amanda Bailey provides some insight into the amazing, yet often maligned period known as adolescence.

Puberty begins at any time from eight to 14, on average the onset of puberty starts at 11 in girls and 12 in boys when the hypothalamus begins to release sex hormones.

The physical signs of puberty are easily recognised: changes in body shape, the advent of body hair, sweat and, for some, spots and acne. Although we may identify with many stereotypical behaviours associated with teenagers, we are much less familiar with how the 'puberty brain' adjusts to these new and shifting hormone levels.

Amanda Bailey
Amanda Bailey

Throughout our lives we rely on a part of the brain called our amygdala – our fight and flight response – wired for threats, real or perceived.

It is from here, as the logical, reasoning, problem-solving part of the brain – known as the prefrontal cortex – is growing, that remodelling and maturing the reactionary, emotional volatility and impulsivity comes. One moment, a confident, happy, and laughing teen, the next irritated, upset and angry with friends and family.

The prefrontal cortex contributes hugely to personal development as the teen leaves child-like thinking behind and begins to understand more complex matters; including searching for their identity, as well as moral and social choices. This amazing pruning process which occurs during adolescence is brilliantly explained in a short YouTube clip by Dan Siegel entitled The Adolescent Brain www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O1u5OEc5eY

Adolescence word cloud
Adolescence word cloud

There are many striking similarities during adolescence with the animal world: pushed by their adolescent brain and their peers, wildlife documentary-makers share the moment fledgling King penguins enter icy waters, with hearts in our mouths, we watch their 'risky behaviours', as they evade predatory creatures, learning crucial life lessons as they transition from dependency to self-reliance.

Social status is another issue, I'm sure I am not alone in experiencing scenes from the Serengeti when my, up until puberty, biddable son, could be found squaring up to his equally amenable Dad, reminiscent of a juvenile lion challenging the ageing male to take over the pride.

Twenty years ago, journalist, Adair Lara, wrote a candid memoir describing her own experiences of parenting her teenage daughter Hold Me Close, Let Me Go.

She writes kids are dogs, teens are cats: 'You, not realising that the dog is now a cat, think something must be desperately wrong with it. It seems so antisocial, so distant, sort of depressed. It won't go on family outings. Since you're the one who raised it, taught it to fetch and stay and sit on command, you assume you did something wrong. Flooded with guilt and fear you redouble your efforts to make your pet behave. Only now you're dealing with a cat, so everything that worked before now produces the opposite of the desired result. Call it and it runs away. Tell it to sit and it jumps on the counter. The more you go towards it wringing your hands, the more it moves away.'

Listen to your teenage children
Listen to your teenage children

So, how to behave like a cat owner: be a good listener, rather than a 'fixer' or 'quizzer'. Give your teenager space to come up with their own thoughts and understanding, discover who they are and what they can do. Make the most of spontaneous moments, maybe when you're watching a TV programme, driving them somewhere to meet up with friends, sitting down on your teen’s bed as they complete some homework. Remember, generally teens want to connect with other teens and need space away from listening ears.

Adolescents frequently consider their parents as 'part of the problem': you're not listening, you don't understand ANYTHING and aren't respecting their wishes.

Even though it may be really tough, it is more important than ever to lead by example. Teenagers need to know all emotions are OK, but not all behaviours – love is unconditional. When overwhelmed by a ranting and raging teenager, a parent needs to put on their own oxygen mask, taking time out and settling their own heightened emotions, ready to be there when the crying and raging is over. Most parents do not share the same parenting skills, this is a time to put your own conditioning to one side and support each other. Whatever your domestic setting, it will help your young person if you present a united front and agree on proactive plans and actions including setting clear boundaries and limits, as you all navigate this stage of life.. And, essentially, remember to be kind to yourself.

Parents’ behaviour is often rooted in their own fears and suspicions.

Listen to your teenager’s ideas, thoughts and questions; consider what's possible, voicing your opinion if asked. The longer you listen without judgement, the safer you will be when they need to speak to someone about their own sadness or disappointment.

As a parent, it becomes more apparent to me every day that our children are sent to open our eyes.

Carefree adolescents
Carefree adolescents

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