Ep 163: Forget Hormones! What’s Going On Inside the Teen Brain?

Dr. Sarah McKay, author of The Women’s Brain Book, demystifies the research on the brain--the difference between males and females, the impact of hormones, and why the teenage years are such an exciting time for the brain.

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Full show notes

When our middle or high schoolers are driving us up the wall, we often attribute their wacky behavior to hormones. They weren’t this crazy when they were younger, and we pray they won’t be this unpredictable as adults, so we assume it must be those teenage chemicals in their brains making them act up. It’s just a biological process, and there’s nothing we can do...right?

But attributing all of our teens’ behavior to hormones can bring up some complicated questions for parents. Like, with everything going on in her brain already, would it be wise to put my daughter on birth control? Or, is it normal, hormonal, behavior that keeps my teenager out late, causes him to drive like a maniac? What if there are other factors to consider when pondering these questions that can make things a little clearer for parents?

To find out, we’re talking to Dr. Sarah McKay, renowned neuroscientist, to find out what role hormones really play in teen’s development...and what popular ideas are actually misconceptions! Dr. McKay is an Oxford educated doctor with years of experience researching brian science. Finding herself intrigued by outdated or misconstrued ideas about the female mind, she decided to write The Women’s Brain Book, a comprehensive look at the development of women’s neural pathways.  

In this week’s episode, Dr. McKay’s demystifying the role of hormones during puberty–and explaining why we give them too much weight. Plus, we’re discussing the specific brain changes our pubescent kids are experiencing, and getting into how gender stereotypes seep into what should be purely scientific perspectives of puberty.

The Truth About Hormones

Although we often think of puberty as being absolutely characterized by changes in hormones, the truth is a little more complicated, says Dr. McKay. Although teens are experiencing a switch up of hormonal activity during this tumultuous period, it's not just these hormones that are making them act up!

In the episode, Dr. McKay elaborates on how teens’ brains are constantly receiving messages from everything they do–every muscle they move, every bite they eat, or even the temperature of their body! This means that beyond just the new, puberty- induced hormonal changes going on in teen’s brains, their environment and contextual elements are constantly contributing to mood swings, anger, sadness, discomfort, etc! Puberty hormones simply dial up or dial down the emotional effects of these external influences.

By pinning everything on hormones, Dr. McKay thinks we might be furthering a particular narrative about emotion–especially for girls and women! When we chalk up mood swings or discontentment to hormonal activity, we’re only starting the common, offensive misconception that when a woman isn’t happy, it must be because it’s her “time of the month”. It can lead to the idea that a woman’s anger or concern is just her being “hysterical” or overreacting due to her, well, being a woman! As Dr. McKay emphasizes in the episode, we would rather our kids have a more sophisticated understanding of female emotion than this!

In our interview,  Dr. McKay talks at length about the birth control pill and whether or not the hormonal effects are important to consider for your own teen. To continue our discussion of puberty struggles specific to the female, we’re also breaking down how our society’s commonly held beliefs about gender affect our perspectives when it comes to puberty.

How Our Idea of Gender is Too Generalized

There are a lot of gendered ideas about puberty floating around, and Dr. McKay is here to help separate fact from fiction. To start, she tackles differences between male and female brain development when it comes to mathematical thinking. Many people think that boys are able to configure complicated mathematical concepts before young women, like being able to rotate a 3D object in their minds. 

Dr. McKay explains that while there may appear to be some truth to the idea if you’re looking at overall averages, it’s not necessarily reflected when studied on a case by case basis. Plus, the difference might not be a result of brain development. If we were examining a brain, Dr. McKay explains, there would be nothing indicating whether it was male or female, as the two are nearly identical. This means it’s possible that learning differences between men and women are from the way we teach them!

Dr. McKay confirms that there are some differences along gender lines when it comes to the rate of mood disorders among adolescents–but a lot of this comes from gender roles. For example, young women are more likely to talk to others about the way they’re feeling, but it can cause them to ruminate on certain problems longer than they should. This can cause depressive or anxious thoughts to become more and more ingrained until young women find themselves with a diagnosable mood disorder. Men are less likely to confide in others because they aren’t encouraged to! Instead, they’re more likely to develop anger management issues or alcoholism as a result of repression, Dr. McKay explains.

If your teen develops physically earlier or later than their peers, this can also be a gendered issue encompassing mental health, says Dr. MacKay. Young women who develop early tend to be treated as outsiders, leading them to develop anxiety or other mood disorders. Men who develop later are often looked down upon or treated as “wimpy,” leading them down a similar road, Dr. McKay says.

Dr. Mckay talks even further about gender and puberty in our interview, and brings up some seriously surprising points! In the episode, we’re also covering why adolescence is such a critical period for learning and growing, even if we don’t think of it that way.

Breaking Down the Adolescent Brain

Dr. McKay explains that there are two times when human brains are the most posed for learning–the toddler years and the teenage years! Two and three year old brains are adjusting to learn talking and walking, while the teenage brain is ripe for learning history, math, science and English as well as empathy and emotional regulation. In our discussion we talk about how we often underestimate teens’ brain power, when we should really be cheering them on!

If you’re wondering why teens can be so reactive during this period, it’s because their neural pathways are still developing, and the emotionally reactive parts are the ones that develop first! Dr. Mckay explains how more logical responses tend to arrive in a few years, when teens have refined their reactive thinking and strengthened the pathways that lead to rational responses.

One thing parents should look out for in growing teens is what Dr. McKay calls cognitive reappraisal. This is a thought process that is common for developing teenage brains that often leads to social anxiety, insecurity, or fear of rejection. Dr. McKay explains this concept further in our interview and shares how it might be affecting your teen.

In the Episode…

Dr. McKay’s bountiful experience and wisdom shines through in our interview. On top of the topics discussed above, we talk about:
  • Why puberty is starting younger and younger
  • How to use stealth to teach kids lessons
  • Why we should rethink teen risk-taking
  • How body temperature affects our mood
Thanks for listening! I had a blast learning all about the brain from Dr. McKay and hope you did too. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr Sarah McKay
Dr Sarah McKay
Author: 'Baby Brain: The surprising neuroscience of how pregnancy & motherhood sculpt our brains & change our minds (for the better).' Apr 2023
Ep 163: Forget Hormones! What’s Going On Inside the Teen Brain?
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