Beware the teen tipping point

Helping our teens to cope, conquer and shine

Technically adolescence starts well before the age of 13 so I am really writing here about the first half of the adolescent journey before 18 as this is seen often as a window of sensitivity or vulnerability due to the collision of body changes, hormonal changes and brain changes.

With over 40 years of experience with boys and girls during this biologically wired time of transformation (ultimately preparing a child to be an adult), I know that we lose many, and that many others emerge into adulthood scarred or struggling to find their place in the world.

During the early stages of this bumpy ride there are significant brain changes, including pruning, that occur which can quite quickly impact your adolescent! Increased forgetfulness, a drop in organisation skills, a heightened emotional reactivity to often very small things they disagree with and an inability to manage moods and distractions. Now you may understand why the bedroom suddenly resembles a dump site some days and they can lose stuff easily – backpacks, mobile phones, school uniforms and sporting footwear!

The cracked windscreen world view

Despite what many parents tell me, our teens in this window do not do any of this deliberately and in a way they find themselves confused, anxious and incapable of managing such simple tasks. I have previously described this transformation using the metaphor of seeing the world through a clean car windscreen and then suddenly seeing everything through a cracked windscreen. Things now seem distorted – a zit can seem enormous, not having the right hair product can mean missing school and a disappointing mark can appear life-threatening – a complete catastrophe.

“Adolescents experience more intense urges than children and adults and the mental controls to stop them are in short supply.” — Sheryl Feinstein, Parenting the Teenage Brain (2007)

This cracked windscreen means that most teens will see themselves in a poorer light. I can remember feeling ugly, clumsy and dumb and yet I can see from photos of my high school days I was actually none of those things and I did well academically.

Given this is a time where being dark, negative and moody at times, viewing the world through a cracked windscreen can be the norm, in today’s digital world where teens are desperately seeking acceptance and validation online it is much harder to manage big ugly feelings.

Many girls have told me that their day will be determined by how many people liked an image or post they shared before school. Sad but true. Self-loathing and self-disgust is incredibly common among both teen boys and girls – even those who are achieving high grades and doing well in other areas of their lives. Interestingly they often think they are the only one feeling that bad – and everyone else is doing well!

We can all struggle with big ugly feelings at times that are triggered by events and thoughts. Mature grown-ups have a finished brain which means their pre-frontal cortex or executive functioning brain has fully developed and it can help us soothe ourselves by making choices to change how we feel. We might notice feeling stressed or even anxious and we make a choice to make our self feel better by for example making a cup of tea, grabbing a piece of fruit, eating a lolly, doing some deep breathing, a downward dog or going for a walk and a stretch. Yes I have been known to lock myself in the toilet for some peace – a strategy that worked for me!

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Children and teens do not have this mental capacity and they can get stuck in an emotional state and often seem to make it worse by ‘stinking thinking’. I call this sort of thinking an ANT attack – ANT stands for automatic negative thoughts. Teens have a tendency to ‘awfulise’ and can accelerate these big ugly feelings and this triggers an overload of the stress hormone, cortisol. This can be made worse if their peers and friends are also in the same space as ‘emotional contagion’ is very real. Having positive caring adult allies that I call ‘lighthouses’ can help enormously to tame ANT attacks and to be an agent of lightness, hope and enthusiasm.

Parents, teachers, coaches, aunts and uncles can all help teens find positive ‘feel good’ neuro-chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins by encouraging any of the following things. Pleasurable activities – both real and imagined – can help them feel better. In a way they act like ANT poison.

How to make positive brain chemicals

Doing things you enjoy, which are respectful of yourself and others, creates positive brain chemicals. Here are some that work:

  • Athletic success & sport – team and individual
  • Artistic & creative expression – drama, dance, music, art
  • Deep relaxation & stillness – calming music, mindfulness audios and apps (like Smiling Mind)
  • Safe, honest human connection – deep human connectedness, family, friendship
  • Significant immersion in nature – walking, surfing, fishing, walking the dog
  • Acts of service – helping others such as volunteering at an animal refuge, aged care home.
  • Discovering new purpose & meaning – starting something new, gratitude journal
  • Ritual & ceremony – campfires, rites of passage, religious activities, making up your own
  • Celebration – social gatherings, hanging out with friends
  • Laughter & lightness – comedy shows, watching fainting goat and other funny animals videos

The emotional barometer

Even though these activities can create feel-good neurochemicals that can ease discomfort and distress, there are times when teens have major emotional meltdowns that swamp them. These moments can be triggered by something quite tiny. I once had a 15-year-old boy who came into my English classroom and suddenly just smashed his fist into the brick wall! This was his delayed response to a disappointing maths test result he had received in a previous class. He broke two knuckles.

To help understand this explosive response – and yes girls can also throw chairs, punch someone or run away just as suddenly – it can help to liken our nervous system to an emotional barometer.

We have stored in that nervous system emotional tension – even from our early childhood – and those who come from dysfunctional and especially abusive homes have lots of tension stored.

In any given day we adults can influence the level of angst we live with if we have a prefrontal lobe as already explained. Teens struggle with the increased stressors they live with – they start each day with an emotional barometer that is already heading to overload! Poor nights’ sleep, no breakfast, un-prepared for a test, a mean SMS, a rebuke from a friend, being ignored from someone they like, forgetting they have sport and yep that zit on their chin can all combine to overload their nervous system. So as it nears the top – tiny things can cause it to tip. This is caused a tipping point.

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Navigating the tipping point

I have worked with teens who have run away from home because their mum nagged them about a wet towel on their bed when their system was in overload. Another girl self-harmed when her friend didn’t respond to an SMS. A mother shared how a break up with his girlfriend – and they had broken up and reconnected many times – was the tipping point for her son to attempt to take his life. This incredible vulnerability can be a rolled eye from one of the cool kids, being chastised in front of your class and even falling over in front of your peers. It can be tiny … like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing.

This tipping point can see our fragile teens act irrationally and totally out of character and often they want to attack someone – if not themselves, then others or even just the world around them. It is a classic primitive brain response to enormous threat even though there may only be a tiny threat present. When they have seen what they have done – it can cause another irrationally frightening response as a consequence of the shame they feel.

So please beware of the emotional vulnerability of our teens and the risk of the tipping point being triggered. They live in a much harsher world than their parents and the cracked windscreen is even more cracked than before the digital world appeared.

They need more compassionate support than ever before and it needs more than parents to ensure they can navigate this vulnerable time. Step forward and be a ‘lighthouse’ for a teen nearby in your world. Be the grown up who has a prefrontal that really works and care for your own and their friends with gestures of kindness, messages of encouragement, moments of lightness and staying in touch.

Be the grown up who has a prefrontal … and care for your own and their friends with gestures of kindness, messages of encouragement, moments of lightness and staying in touch.

To every parent of a teen, remind your teen often that you do love them and you will continue to love them, no matter what – even if they roll their eyes or say ‘whatever!’ – keep doing it. Do this especially after they have done something that you feel does not deserve your love! So many teens over the years have told me their parents didn’t care – and I knew that simply was not true.

I have worked with many parents whose teens never came home. So my last message to you is farewell them every day with a loving gesture, just in case.

 

IF YOU NEED SUPPORT:

There are many wonderful services and websites out there that offer support, ideas, information (even live chat) for adolescents and those who support them. We’ve compiled a list here.