The adolescent years have a bad reputation for turning our sweet little children into hormonally driven, impulsive, lazy, moody teens, but–according to new research–the tween and teen years are really a time we can be excited about.
Adolescence is a really important period of our children’s lives where they are growing in their independence, creativity, ability to think, and sense of identity. It ranges from puberty (around age 12) until our kids get their adult brain (somewhere from their late teens to early 30s!).
Hi, I’m Kelly. I am currently parenting a tween (Lula) and have one adult daughter who certainly went through a very typical teenage period.
The tween and teen years are challenging for us as parents, but if we can better understand what is going on in our kids’ brains at this time, they can also be very exciting years.
Teen brain development
Dr Daniel Siegel, author of Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain, is one advocate for celebrating the teenage years more. He says that the idea of raging hormones causing teen behaviour is really outdated. We know a lot more now about brain development.
The brain rewires itself at an incredibly rapid pace during the teen years. As parents, it’s important that we try to understand the incredible remodelling the brain is doing in these years. Then we can both enjoy the benefits (such as creativity) and at the same time, better help our teens reduce the risks that come along with these changes (like poor decision-making skills).
So, what are some of the things that make tweens and teens so amazing?
Creativity at a peak
During the teen years creativity and innovation are at a high, according to Siegel. Because of the remodelling happening in their brains, teens are not limited in their thinking as much as adults are. In fact, many brilliant innovative ideas in history have come from teenagers! This age group, unlike younger children, are also able to think in more abstract ways. This combination of creativity and abstract thinking leads to some very original ideas. Teenagers are also beginning to specialise. They often have clear interests and hobbies.
As parents we can encourage our tweens and teens to use their creativity in their interest areas, think outside of the box, and develop their ideas. Not all of them will be practical of course, but keep encouraging them to explore ideas and they might come up with something surprising.
Wired to learn
As Jay Giedd, professor of psychiatry at the University of California says, “It’s a time of phenomenal leaps in creativity and cognitive abilities.” So, let’s support our teens with their innovative ideas!
During the adolescent years, our children’s developing brains become incredibly active in the area that seeks reward. Because of this, studies have found, teens are far more wired to learn from experience than adults are.
Neuroscientist Daphna Shomany, from Columbia University, found in her research that teenagers were not only quicker learners than adults but they were also better at remembering small details.
During teen years, the part of the brain that seeks out rewards communicates much more efficiently with the memory storage part than in adults. This means our young people’s brains are learning all the time from their experiences.
Adolescent brains have a remarkable ability to learn and change which makes these years a potential opportunity for growth for our kids, even if they haven’t been doing so well at school so far.
Sensitivity to emotions
Tween and teen brains are set up to be far more sensitive to their own and others’ feelings in these years. Our children are also developing a sense of their own identity in this time (which doesn’t become very stable until early adulthood so don’t worry if they try on a few different identities!).
As part of developing their identity, they also become very aware of how others’ feel, start to be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and recognise how they are seen by the world.
Tweens and teens also become very aware of moral ideas and issues at this age. This is a chance for us as parents to really enjoy exploring these ideas with our children. We can listen to them, gently challenge their thinking, and help them develop empathy for others and their ideas.
We often think of the typical boundary pushing and risk-taking behaviours that comes with teen years as a bad thing. According to Siegel though, our teens strong emotions, push for independence, creativity and willingness to take risks are actually necessary. Risk-taking and independence can lead to meeting new people, trying new sports or activities, and discovering things they are passionate about.
If developed well, these aspects are incredibly important for our children to become independent from us. They lead to great adult lives, full of adventure and purpose.
In these years, parenting isn’t always easy. Our tweens and teens need boundaries and guidance, and often challenge us as parents, but, as they grow into adulthood, there is also a lot to enjoy about this stage of their lives.
For more on the adolescent brain, watch Researcher Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s Ted Talk.
Building strong relationships with your tweens and teens
It’s important in these years of your child’s life to remember to enjoy each other. I know this can be hard to do in reality. Teens are reluctant at times to do things with the family and it can be easy to focus on the negatives.
Even more reason for us as parents to find out what our teens want to do, and make it happen!
If they love the outdoors, plan an adventure together.
If they spark up at the mention of an x-box game, then see if they want to play with you.
If they love makeup, set up an appointment for an afternoon at the beautician together.
Whatever they love, try to get alongside them, learn about it, and do your best to enjoy it because they do. Even if it’s not something that you are passionate about, your relationship will benefit from the focused attention you’re giving your child.
Make an effort to do what they love
My tween, Lula, is passionate about parties. The more extreme the party the better. She loves themes, dress ups, games, decorations…the whole thing.
I really don’t enjoy parties. I’m an introvert and parties seem like expensive, loud, time-consuming energy-draining events.
But recently I decided we needed to do something fun. Lula wanted a themed party for her next birthday but that’s still months away. So, as a surprise, I told her we could organise a dinner party, just for us.
We decided on a future theme: all the things that people think/ thought would happen in the future. The end of the world. Aliens. Silver clothing. Robots.
For a small budget, we bought some party food which included meatless meat (future sausages!), dangerous doritos, autopsied aliens (tiny kiwifruit which we drew alien faces on with a food safe pen), and radioactive (spirulina) juice. Some of it was a bit strange, but that added to the fun.
We blew up a heap of green balloons and drew on alien faces, made spaceships and had a tinfoil future outfit challenge.
Don’t assume games and crafts are too young for your child. Playing is so important for us and experts generally agree that young people don’t get enough.
When given the chance most tweens and teens will take up any opportunity to play and be a bit of a kid, especially when it’s just family at home–no peers watching.
Give it a go and email to tell us about it! My girls and I would love to hear what fun things you got up to.
Grab a free copy of Managing Conflict with Teens too if you haven’t already. The link is below. Many parents have already told me how helpful it has been for them! We are all learning and this research-based resource gives us some more tools for our parenting toolkit.
Until next time,