Ep 194: Sex Hormones and Your Teen’s Brain

Dr. Louann Brizendine joins us to talk about how sex hormones affect teen’s behavior. Plus, how teens establish a social hierarchy with their peers and why seemingly simple conversations with teens sometimes turn into full blown arguments.

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Full show notes

When our kids are being moody and dramatic, we tend to just roll our eyes and chalk up their behavior to hormones. We know their bodies and brains are changing…so they’re going to have some growing pains! But when we say the word “hormones”, do we know what it really means? Beyond just affecting our kids' emotions and physical development, how do these chemicals really work within our teens' bodies as they evolve from kids to adults?

To understand how hormones affect our teens, we’ll have to go way back…all the way back to conception! Hormones have been affecting our kids since they were little more than a fertilized egg. Understanding how hormones act on the mind and body throughout the human lifespan can help us understand what’s going on during the teens years–and why teens can be  so angry, sad, confused and angsty!

To help us get to the bottom of all the hormonal changes, we’re talking to Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of both The Female Brain and The Male Brain. Louann is an endowed professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, where she also founded the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic. She’s dedicated her life to studying how hormones change human behavior, thoughts and emotions.

In our interview, Louann is helping us understand our kids’ hormonal timeline, from the womb to adulthood. We’re also discussing the difference between female and male social behavior during the teen years, and how hormones can cause simple conflicts to escalate into intense  arguments with teens.

The Hormone Timeline

Although we often associate hormones with the teenage years, these chemicals are  powerful forces that shape our kids  before they’re  even born! Louann explains that our hormones, especially testosterone, begin to have major effects on humans when a fetus is only six weeks old. If the fetus carries XY chromosomes, its entire body and brain will be marinated in testosterone after six weeks, says Louann, creating male anatomy. For fetuses with the XX chromosome, this testosterone is absent, leading them to develop female features as a default!

Louann explains that males face an intense influx of testosterone as they go through puberty. For boys, testosterone levels go up steadily for their entire childhood, hitting a peak around age fifteen. During adolescence,  Louann says that boys see a 250x increase of testosterone, making them rather eager to begin mating! This is the period in which young men begin to find themselves interested in females, says Louann, something that’s incredibly normal. In the episode, we discuss how we can help our sons understand that all these new feelings are simply a part of getting older, not something to be ashamed of.

For young women, a hormonal timeline tends to look more cyclical, especially after menstruation begins, says Louann. In the episode, we talk a lot about the hormone cycle women go through every month. You might be worried when your daughter suddenly starts dressing differently or talking about boys, but it’s likely a result of her ovulation, when her body tells her to turn on the charm, says Louann. And the idea of “PMS” is more than just a joke–women really do experience intense emotions as a result of hormone changes when they’re about to experience their period, Louann explains. 

For teens, hormones cause  more than just body changes–they also affect social and emotional behavior, especially when it comes to interacting with peers. In our interview, Louann and I are discussing how boys and girls experience social hierarchy and rejection differently.

Hormones and Teen Social Hierarchies

Interestingly, Louann tells us that friendship between females is incredibly rewarding–much more so than friendship between males. When women are sharing secrets and confiding in one another, their minds release hormones  like oxytocin and dopamine, meaning they feel happy and safe. This likely developed for evolutionary purposes, explains Louann. Having deep connections with other women can help females develop an extra layer of protection and support for both herself and her potential offspring.

On the other hand, teen girls can have very catty and conflict-filled relationships! But why would this happen, when female friendships are so rewarding? Louann explains that this drama is most prevalent in the teen years, as girls are still developing self-image and find themselves constantly comparing their own bodies to those of other women. During this period, young girls can have a lot of very painful, self loathing thoughts, says Louann, leading them to lash out against other young women who are potentially receiving more attention from males.

It’s different for boys, however, Louann explains.  Male hierarchies are most likely to be founded on physical strength and aggression. In the episode, Louann shares an interesting piece of research in which ten young men, all strangers, briefly met and then ranked themselves on a hypothetical hierarchy. Because so much of the male pecking order is decided through physical strength, every single one of the boys had an identical ranking, based on the physical fitness of the other participants..  Louann explains that the natural male hormonal response to strong negative feelings or threats is to become physically aggressive, creating a hierarchy of physical dominance.

When tensions are running high in your home and an argument breaks out, emotions can escalate pretty quickly. Louann explains that this is because of a process called “emotional contagion”.

How Emotions Can Be Contagious

One minute, it seems like you and your teen are just chatting it up about their day at school, and the next they burst into tears, run up into their room and slam the door. You’re left there wondering, how did this happen, and how did I not see it coming? In our interview, Louann explains that while women can read people’s faces and predict if they’re about to cry, men struggle with this a lot. If you’re a man, you night find yourself grappling with this!

And when men do sense that a young woman might cry, they are often struck by my emotional contagion, says Louann. This is the ability of one person's strong emotions to transfer to another during an argument or a conversation. This emotional contagion can trigger our pain response when a teen is crying or yelling, which can stress us out! We want the emotional intensity to come down a notch, so we might try to calm our teen down or even just leave the room altogether. Louann suggests that we take a minute to try and de-escalate the situation. This can bring your teen back to a better place while also helping you settle your own emotions. 

In the episode, Louann and I  talk about how males and females channel emotions differently, but otherwise have brains that are 99% the same! Boys  are likely to become more physically aggressive when upset while girls may cry or become verbally hostile, but both genders are handling heavy emotions that must have an outlet! If we can all learn to understand and have patience for each other's emotions, we’ll be able to solve conflict in a smarter, more productive way.

In the Episode…

It was a delight to speak to Louann this week about all things hormones! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about…
  • Why research on female brains is so scarce
  • How society's expectations influence our gender expression
  • Why school sex ed isn’t comprehensive enough
  • How breakups affect both genders
If you enjoyed listening, you can find more from Louann on her website, louannbrizendine.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Ep 194: Sex Hormones and Your Teen’s Brain
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