3 Meaningful ways to calm the developing teenage brain

3 Meaningful ways to calm the developing teenage brain

How do you respond to a teenager on an emotional rollercoaster ride?

This is an interesting question, though, to put us at ease, the teenage emotional rollercoaster ride is normal while the brain is still developing. Within the limbic system of an adolescent, the Amygdala, which prioritizes and learns our human survival and emotional messages (Desautels, 2016) is in full flow while the brain is developing. This area, which is involved in instinctive, impulsive, emotional and aggressive reactions (Karen Young) needs to be quieted, so that the developing Prefrontal Cortex, the area above our eyes and behind the forehead, which plays a key role in impulse control, decision-making and future planning, can come more and more into play and help us make good decisions while it is being structured and wired up as a result of our learning and experiences.  The Prefrontal Cortex will only be fully developed when we are in our mid-20s.

I am going to deliberately digress, as it’s important we try and understand the global community in which our young people are developing and this, for example, has been an interesting week thus far. Events taking place will be impacting the young lives in different ways. What’s been going on?Some of the topics that have attracted my attention have included:

  • North Korea launching a missile through Japanese air space and watching Kim Jung-In laughing and cheering this provocative event, while so many of his people live in poverty and suffer ignorant of what a holistic education journey might do to release their unique gifts and talents.
  • The awful images of the devastating impact Hurricane Harvey is having in Texas, described as the ‘worst rainfall disaster in US History’; one can only wonder what rebuilding efforts will be needed once the rain subsides and the flood waters ebb.
  • Meanwhile in New York the US Tennis Open is under way and there will be some wonderful stories emerging of triumph over adversity, as well as the Tennis ‘brats’ earning obscene amounts of money, yet lacking ‘something’ in their characters that would encourage me to show genuine respect rather than frustration, even sadness when I hear their names mentioned.
  • In Australia there is much discussion on same-sex marriage and a proposed Government plebiscite to hear what voters think about this matter. If one supports a fairly well researched view that every child in our ‘ideal’ world should grow up with a mum and dad, who love them unconditionally, and that many children growing up in single parent, blended and other ‘so called’ families struggle through adolescence, one is vilified for daring to oppose same sex marriage in a democratic country? When I thought about all the students I had mentored, worked with or coached at a deeper level, the overwhelming number came from difficult home environments.
  • Also in Australia, the Test Cricketers have just lost a Cricket Test to Bangladesh for the very first time. The Australian Cricketers have recently been involved in a pay dispute. It was unpleasant and now many of these Cricketers will potentially earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, each year. These sorts of payments are happening in many sports around the globe. How can they be justified?
  • There will be other natural disasters, eg in India and there are all the tragedies in the Middle East ravaged by war …. the list of suffering people in different parts of the world is too long.

While we watch demagogues and other egotistical global leaders flaunting their power in almost narcissistic ways, while millions of innocent people are suffering at the hands of natural disasters and sports men and women earn significant amounts of money for displaying their crafts, I wonder how all these matters are impacting our young people?

One point is abundantly clear to me and, maybe that’s because I have been through the highs and lows of education for 40 years: too many of our ‘so called’ young stars are being sucked into the world of instant gratification and entitlement and it’s not doing them or anyone else any good. And, in addition to this, we have the ‘drone’ parents (yes, I think it’s getting worse and worse) replacing the helicopter parents and no-one seems to know what to do about this either.

So, I stepped back and reflected for a while, yet I was being haunted by one sentence I had read over the weekend in an article by newly qualified freelance Australian journalist, 22 year old Tom deSousa.

Tom described his journey through childhood, a talented boy from a privileged background. When he was 8 or 9 his parents moved from the UK to Australia and things went pear-shaped. Tom’s family fell apart and he entered a world of petty (initially) crime and drugs, first injecting Ice into his system at the age of 14.

At the age of 13 he had been sent to a residential rehab for young offenders which he described as a ‘grave’ mistake, as he was still on the fringes of the drug and crime world, yet in rehab he was mixing with more experienced offenders.

The sentence that really got to me was this, as Tom described the grave mistake of sending him to rehab: “… real issues of anger and self-loathing went unaddressed.”

It would take Tom a few more years to come clean of Ice and a life of crime and move into a more positive life space. What, I wondered, might his life have been like if he had had a network of adult support around him as he settled into the Australian culture, people who had cared for him as the non-judgmental Cheerleaders?

Stories like that of Tom inspire me to keep on keeping on promoting the Spirit of Mentoring of adolescents as they journey through a time in their lives when they are undergoing rapid physical changes; changes in the intensity and volatility of their emotions; changes in relationships with parents, peers and other authority figures and their desire to discover the answers to two (of many) key questions: ‘Who am I?’; ‘Who do I want to be?’

Dr Lori Desautles, Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Marian University, shares how she is learning that students who look oppositional, defiant or aloof may be exhibiting negative behavior because they are in pain and presenting their stress response.

And I thought of Tom.

Lori goes on to say, “A traumatised brain can also be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected or detached brain expressing feelings of isolation, worry, angst and fear. In youth, anger is often the bodyguard for deep feelings of fear …. Students whose development is disrupted often walk through the doors of our schools mistrusting adults.”

Again, I wondered about Tom.

Lori suggests three ways to create calm and safe brain states within ourselves and within the students who might be in this ‘traumatised’ state of emotional pain.

Lori’s full article can be read, but a brief summary of the three ways are:

  • Movement: physical activities to calm the limbic system and bring the focus back to learning and reasoning. I have had students stand for a couple of minutes, stretch their right hand, for example, and try and touch the roof standing on tip toes and then do the same with the left hand. It calms them down, gets the blood flowing and the oxygen reaching and recharging the brain and, because it’s done as a fun activity, it creates a more relaxed and enjoyable learning environment. Another time, I remember, one of the most rebellious students in the class came forward and created some aerobic exercises which the class followed for a couple of minutes. Great fun! and much hilarity, with plenty of Dopamine probably being released with positive thoughts in that learning environment 🙂
  • Focused attention practices: teaching students relaxation exercises, like breathing deeply, so the brain is primed again for focus, attention and learning; teaching mindfulness …
  • Understanding the brain: teaching students how the brain functions, especially the role of the Amygdala, ‘fight or flight’, it’s relation to the Prefrontal Cortex and how activities, such as those mentioned in the previous paragraphs, help them control their physical and emotional development during this period of adolescent brain development. I kept a diagram of the brain handy and shared some of this information with students I was working with. Jason (not his real name) and Penny (not her real name) were two angry students I shared this information with. Both moved from potentially failing academically, even possibly being asked to leave the school, to transforming their lives within a few months, with my ongoing support and encouragement, and went on to complete University Degrees.

There are many more practical things we can do as parents, teachers, coaches and mentors to support our young people during this time when their brains are still developing.

In my next Blog I’ll share my ’20 Hot Tips to Stay Connected’, ideas that might help us globally to embark on a self-empowering journey with our adolescents that might move them away from ‘instant gratification’ and ‘entitlement’ thinking and behavior and on to a pathway to become the best they can be as unique and talented individuals living within a global community.

Can you identify with young people like Tom? Maybe you have a story to share?

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. He is currently developing a free app to inspire teenagers each day, as well as Mentoring Minutes Podcasts, 2 minute podcasts guiding mentors to encourage their mentees to become the best they can be. He hopes to have these ready by the end of 2017. Please contact him if you want updated progress reports. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook or on Instagram or contact him through his YES! website