If you are the parent or caregiver to a teenager, you may sometimes wonder about (what appears on the outside as) unpredictable behaviour. They may seem to have mood swings and struggle to control their emotions. They may give into peer pressure. They may act impulsively and endanger their safety. It may be hard to communicate with them. You may find yourself getting into more conflicts with your teen.
The truth is, we can blame the brain (or that pre-frontal cortrex!).
Remembering your own adolescent years, you may recall what a tough time it is to manage all of the changes of that age. Teens are adapting to physical, cognitive, and social changes. All this can throw off their physical and mental functioning. Hormones are flying and it amps up their emotions. This is compounded by the fact that their brains are still developing. The pre-frontal cortex, which controls executive functions, such as the ability to make decisions and plan, is actually still forming.
Luckily, research is showing that there are some great ways to help teens slow down, think things through, consider their emotions, and practice more planning before they act. Broadly, these techniques are called Mindfulness Skills. Learn about Mindfulness and how you can help your teen:
More on Mindfulness
A lot of teens (and adults too) have a difficult time settling their mind and calmly tuning into their thoughts and feelings. For that matter, people often have a hard time even thinking about the present moment. Your teen may be in the room with you, but their thoughts may be on something that happened in the lunchroom, wondering if their latest crush likes them, or stressing over homework.
Mindfulness skills help people quiet all the thoughts racing around in their minds and focus. When your teen leaves their thoughts behind and moves into the present, they will be less stressed. They can also practice these skills to slow down, focus, think, and plan, before they act. Adults also find this helpful.
Take a Breath
One of the easiest tools for mindfulness is to just take a few deep breaths. Now, ideally, your teen could practice some Deep Breathing each day to reduce stress, center their mind, and develop their Mindfulness skills. This would involve sitting quietly, focusing on breathing, slowing that breathing down, and letting the mind be quiet. However, many teens may say they do not have time for that.
It is also very helpful to slow down with a few breathes when things are getting stressful. Next time you see your teen getting stressed, ask them to just pause, and take a few deep breaths. They will likely be calmer afterwards and able to think more clearly. You can also role model this for them. Sometime when you face conflict, ask to pause, and everyone can take a few deep breaths before going on.
Think about Thought
Teens are also still working on their ability for meta-cognition (which allows people to think about their thoughts). Helping your teen to examine their thoughts can help them make good decisions and act less impulsively. You can have them try this exercise: imagine yourself in your mind, watch your thoughts, if they seem uncertain or important spend time with them, and if not important, practice letting them go.
Family Quiet Time
One of the things that has everyone stressed today, is that everyone is always on the go. Teens especially often have a full day at school, followed by activities, and homework. They may struggle to settle down at the end of the day. This can make them tired and stressed. Spending time together can fall by the wayside. However, you can reconnect as a family and practice some Mindfulness together.
Implementing some family quiet time can be a great way to teach your teens (and younger kids too) about Mindfulness. It is quite simple—just get the family together at some set time (maybe before homework, after dinner, or before bed). Spend a few minutes talking about the day and then meditate or listen to a Guided Visualization (check out YouTube for some). This can help everyone calm down.
Using Mindfulness skills is helpful for reducing stress and thinking more clearly. Research shows this can help teens manage their emotions, make better decisions, and act less impulsively. Daily use is helpful and it allows for practice, so that in a moment of stress or upset, the skills can be easily engaged.
If your teen seems more than just stressed—if they seem anxious or depressed, or if they exhibit some other particularly concerning behaviors (illegal activity, self-injury, or comments about suicide), then please reach out for support. Your teen might benefit from having a professional resource outside the family to talk things over and learn coping skills. Learn about our youth program here.