3 meaningful ways you can help to calm the developing teenage brain

3 meaningful ways you can help to calm the developing teenage brain

How do you respond to a teenager on an emotional rollercoaster ride? How do you react to a teenager who feels totally lost? How do you encourage a teenager who ‘appears’ not to want encouragement? Can you remember how you were as a teenager with all your emotions flying all over the place? How did you deal with those times?

These are interesting questions, 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.

It is interesting reading the stories of ‘successful’ teenagers or those who have scaled dizzy heights with some incredible talents. Most have worked hard or trained hard to achieve their success, yet many have no idea how to deal with their fame, partly because their brains are still developing and they probably do not receive the best mentoring to keep their feet well grounded.

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.

Tom’s story

When I was reflecting on all this a while ago, I was reminded of an article written by recently qualified freelance Australian journalist in his early 20’s, 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?

There is a positive way forward – are we listening?

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?’ ‘What is my purpose in life?’

I remain motivated and inspired to challenge the education system, as schools are, without realizing it, still operating on an outdated factory model of organisation, often with a ‘Command-Control’ top-down hierarchy. We need to trust our teachers and empower them in ways that will see students like Tom feel a sense of belonging – so I champion the Vertical Tutoring System for Secondary/High Schools. 

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.

3 meaningful ways to calm the developing teenage brain

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 repeating the activity 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 non-judgmental (as best as I could achieve) 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 and when so many of them are bombarded by social media and do not have the expertise, skills or coaching to appreciate how to discern which aspects of social media to positively engage in.

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 New Zealand and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook (where you are able to join a closed mentoring group) or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website  Robin’s free Mentoring Matters daily podcasts (each podcast between 1.5 and 3 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available here.