Bede's Welcomes 'Teen Brain' Expert Dr Rosemary Taylor
Last week, Dr Rosemary Taylor came to Bede’s to talk to pupils and staff about how the teenage brain works.
Over 200 parents attended her talk last Wednesday evening, which combined insights from her career as a behavioural psychologist with anecdotes from her own experiences as a parent, teacher and head teacher, and which followed a similar but distinct talk delivered to all First Year and Fifth Form children.
“For many years we have blamed challenging teenage behaviour on hormones,” Dr Taylor explained, “but this is only part of the story. Insights provided by recent developments in neuroscience have allowed us to understand how the brain has evolved through time, and to understand how the human brain matures as a person grows older.”
Dr Taylor explored how the human brain is the last organ in the body to mature as we grow, and that the process of brain development is not complete until a person is in their mid-twenties.
“The front of the brain is particularly slow to mature, yet this is the part responsible for logic, forward planning and rational behaviour,” Dr Taylor continued – at which point many things began to fall into place for the parents in the room!
Dr Taylor urged us to think of the teenage brain as a work in progress and to remember that, as an organ in such a state of flux, the way it processes situations and information can be muddled.
“Until the age of 24, the brain is undergoing the most extraordinary dips and peaks in its development, and this has a huge effect on behaviour and attitude,” she said.
A tour of some of the other parts of the brain followed, including of the cerebellum, which governs the way in which we judge social situations.
Dr Taylor was able to connect the physiological evidence with some advice about practical things we can do to support the maturing brains of our children.
One such tip was that the best way to support the developing cerebellum is to provide teenagers with opportunities to take responsibility and to resist the temptation to do things ourselves just because it seems the easiest thing to do.
Dr Taylor then explained to us that the teenage brain is almost constantly primed to feel fear or alarm right up until the prefrontal cortex, which governs rational behaviour, is fully developed.
“As a result,” said Dr Taylor, “teenagers often rely on their fight or flight instincts.”
This statement once again prompted nods of recognition around the room. Dr Taylor then connected this insight with the propensity teenagers have to run to their room and slam the door in response to the smallest disagreements, and their inclination to argue about the most innocuous of things.
Inevitably, the session then invited parents to reflect on the effects that alcohol and drugs can have on the teenage brain, including the potential long-term damage to memory and mental health that illicit substances can have.
With exam season approaching, the lecture also proved opportune for those parents keen to understand how stress can affect adolescents.
During this particularly thought-provoking part of the presentation, Dr Taylor reminded us that today’s teenagers feel under more pressure to be successful at a younger age, to make decisions earlier, and to generally to grow up faster than previous generations.
She explained how teenagers can also feed on the stress of the adults around them, and in doing so she explained that parents should be mindful that the levels of stress evident in children will often rise and fall with those of their parents.
“Keeping our own feelings in check is a small yet significant thing we can do to support our children during challenging times in their life,” she explained.
Attendees were also encouraged to reflect on the temptation that parents have to live vicariously through their children, our egos being intrinsically linked to the achievements – or perceived failures – of our offspring.
Again, Dr Taylor suggested that we should check these natural instincts if we want to reduce pressure on our children.
Next, Dr Taylor ran through the most common indicators of stress: trouble getting to sleep or waking, tiredness, forgetfulness, unexplained aches or pains, poor appetite, irritability, dizziness or headaches.
A combination of these behaviours, she explained, may be a very real indicator of stress and anxiety, and are something that should be shared with school.
Next, we moved on to the topic of teenage sleeping habits – a common irritation for many parents. We often chastise our teenage children for spending too long lazing in bed and see this as a sign of apathy and disinterest in life. Dr Taylor pointed out that teenagers actually need more sleep than younger children however, which is why they find it hard to get up in the morning.
“Screen time can exacerbate this situation,” she continued, “as it interrupts natural sleep patterns by affecting melatonin production.”
It was good to be reminded about the profound effect that sleep has on our lives and general wellbeing; the effect it has on our communication, memory, attention span, and our ability to make sound judgements.
In mentioning it, Dr Taylor reminded us that for young people, who are absorbing huge amounts of information every day, sleep is a major factor in governing whether this information is retained or disposed of; it is the human “back-up system” and as such should be nurtured and protected.
So if digital devices can affect sleep, and we are asking our children to put away their phones an hour before bed, might it not be a good idea for parents to heed the same advice?
“Not only will you sleep better,” said Dr Taylor, “but you will also be setting a good example to your children!”
Towards the end of the talk, Dr Taylor then reflected on the often-baffling relationships parents have with their adolescent teenage offspring. As part of this discussion, she spoke about the natural need for teenagers to pull away from their parents, and the inevitable battles for control which can result.
We learnt that the language that adolescents use can often disguise very mixed feelings; a teenager who declares he or she is “fine” is often far from fine, for example. Similarly, a teenager who rushes out of the room shouting, “I just want to be on my own,” may not actually want to be on their own for very long at all.
“Decoding these dialogues can be challenging – particularly when heightened emotions are involved,” said Dr Taylor, “and this process may take every bit of control, empathy and patience you have.”
The ability to step away and then offer quiet, gentle support however may be one of the most important things we do as a parent.
“It is easy to feel excluded from our child’s relationship with their friends,” said Dr Taylor, “and it can feel as if these relationships are replacing the parent/child bond.
“To some extent, this sense of children pulling away is very real and natural, and we should accept it. Children pull away and establish independence, and they fill that space with other social connections.
“Naturally then, when problems occur in these social networks, it can seem catastrophic to them. If you combine this with the fact that teenagers lack maturity in the part of the brain that governs rational behaviour, it is easy to see how hysterical reactions to disagreements with friends can occur.”
Finally, Dr Taylor reminded us that developing humans learn by watching other humans – which means that our children are learning constantly through observing their parents, watching how they manage anger, relate to others, judging how patient they are, how they receive criticism, and judging whether they are resilient in the face of adversity.
Dr Taylor urged us to show ourselves to be strong and ethical role models therefore, and to ensure that things we do and say would be the things we would want our children to do or say in turn.
This may seem to be an intimidating thought, but Dr Taylor was not advocating that we present a perfect version of ourselves to our children at all times; instead, her implication was that all parents should both be conscious of how their behaviour might be viewed by others and be consistent in setting standards of behaviour.
Even so, Dr Taylor also advocated being honest about our shortcomings and the challenges we have faced in our lives, be that friendship difficulties we had as teenagers or problems at school.
“Such candour can be an immensely reassuring to a young person enduring similar challenges themselves,” Dr Taylor said, “not least as doing so can encourage teenagers to feel that you are a person they can confide in.”
This led us back to the theme of resilience, including how we can help our children build it.
First, Dr Taylor returned to the advice she had given earlier in her talk: to resist the temptation to fix everything.
“We do our children a disservice when we try and take-over as this can be interpreted as a lack of trust or confidence,” she said.
“Rather, small lessons learnt about consequences early in life may prove very beneficial when real challenges emerge later.”
Ultimately then, we must let our children make mistakes and teach them how to bounce back from them – a difficult notion to grapple with, particularly when our natural urge is to protect our children from the discomfort of getting something wrong.
In summing up, Dr Rosemary then had some clear tips on how we can bring out the best in our children – by being generous, open-minded, clear, persistent and, most importantly, present.
“It may be easier said than done,” Dr Taylor concluded, “but, whenever possible, we should be the adults that we would want our children to become.”
After this salient pearl of wisdom, the Headmaster finished the evening by thanking Dr Taylor for her time and reinforcing her point about the importance of communication between parents and school.
Thank you to all of those parents who attended to talk, and to those of you who have contacted us since with your very positive feedback, expressing so eloquently how enlightening, thought-provoking and reassuring you found Dr Taylor’s presentation.