The Psyche of a Teen
Oona Co-Founder Boniface touches on one of his favourite topics: the challenge of adolescence.
Monosyllabic responses? Check.
Colourful mood swings? Check.
Growth spurts? Check.
Epic melt-downs? Check.
Welcome to teenage-hood. Which we’ve discovered looks alot like life with a toddler, only a lot more complicated. Strap yourself in for the science lesson they don’t cover in school; the young adult in your life will thank you.. one day!
20 years in the world of Osteopathy has given Boniface the opportunity to work with hundreds of teenagers, observing both their physical and psychological experience of the world. Now a father of a 12 and 2 year old, this tumultuous teenage phase holds more interest than ever before.
“In the last year I couldn’t help myself in seeing the similarities in the new change in my son’s brain and function [compared with] my daughter.”
To better understand this strange phenomenon, we need to take it back to those ‘terrible twos’. In the tantrums we come to expect from a toddler, you’ll notice an “overwhelming discharge of emotion [that overpowers] any cognitive reasoning.” Indeed, there cannot be a great deal of rational thinking present at this age, it is simply not within the brain’s capacity. Emotions often feel too big to be housed in such a small body, and thus they pour outwards, with meltdowns happening over the simplest of moments. From the ages of 5-11, a greater sense of balance begins to form between the emotion, their limbic system, and the pre-frontal cortex. It’s something of a golden age in many children’s development: they’re at a stage of curiosity in their play where engaging with others is exciting, and yet they’ll often still want to be tucked in at night with cuddles and kisses.
And then, we hit puberty. Cue the rumbling of thunder clouds. “In what feels like a matter of weeks, you’re going to see such a shift in personality,” Boniface muses, “…suddenly you realise he starts to behave a bit like your two-year old daughter.” The trouble is, a child of 12-13 years has a decent range of cognitive abilities unlike the two year old, and the ability to make choices that facilitate positive outcomes. However, despite knowing that abrasive behaviour and a sense of resistance towards his parents will make life less pleasant, he will typically struggle to follow instructions, to take directions or to accept decisions that do not serve his immediate interests. Perhaps he’ll even struggle to get out of bed in the morning and complete the simplest of tasks. It’s enough to leave any parent scratching their head in despair.
To better understand Boniface’s research, we must first consider two key areas of the brain: the amygdala, a hub of sorts for our emotions, and the prefrontal cortex at the front of the skull, a space for cognitive reasoning and decision making. As puberty begins, the neurons in the brain begin a reshaping process which will see up to 40% of its nerve connections transformed. Myelin, a sheath or coating substance that forms around the nerves, begins to slowly form from the limbic system through the pre-frontal cortex, assisting with the efficient transmission of information around the brain.
“In the reshape, at some point your adolescent son or daughter is going to have more sensitivity in [the] emotional parts [of the brain].. suddenly the emotions come and it overpowers all the cognitive capacities. They’re not as quick anymore, it’s difficult for them to make the right decision to [determine] what is better for them right now.”
These changes are so significant in the brain, and that is before we even consider the added pressure of hormonal, growth and sex hormones. The myelin coating will reach the pre-frontal cortex in the later stages of the puberty process, so there’s unfortunately plenty of room for heightened feelings of self-consciousness, insecurity and frustration. Just thinking about it all makes you want to lock yourself in your bedroom with an angsty soundtrack blasting at full-volume, hey?
So how can this help us, as parents, guardians or siblings? We can’t fight the science, but Boniface recommends we ultimately challenge our ideas of teenagers in this complex phase, and at times, recalibrate our expectations of their attitudes and behaviour. This is not to say we allow emotional outbursts to reign supreme, but more that we lead with a sense of open-mindedness and compassion in the way we educate, guide and parent. This transitional phase is not easy, but it won’t last forever. There’s still plenty of love and joy to be found within the ups and downs!
KEY QUOTES – BONI :
“[There is] such a shift in personality.. and also what is happening physiologically, neuroscientifically.. the 12 year old starts to behave a bit like your two year old.”
“All that change into the emotional limbic system also means that you’re very sensitive to what people start to think of you, and you’re also projecting those ideas in people’s minds.”