Ep 106: Teen Brain Hacks

Episode Summary

Malin Gutestam, author of Brain Tools for Teens, shares what she has learned from decades of working in education. There are a few simple tactics that every teen can employ to make their brain work for them–and Malin tells us what parents can do to help.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptInterview TranscriptInterview Transcript

Full Show Notes

When your teen is cranky, rude, anxious, or just stressed out, it’s hard not to ask yourself, what’s making them act this way? You may start to worry that it was by something you did…or wonder if there’s something you should be doing! Parenting is one of the world’s toughest jobs, and even when you’re doing your best it can feel as though your teen’s problems are somehow linked to your parenting.

The truth is, however, these behaviors could be caused by something far out of your control. Teenager’s moods are affected by so many things: the amount of sleep they get, how much time they spend on their screens, whether or not the person they have a crush on talked to them at school…the list goes on. There’s countless small forces that shape teens’ behavior in big ways, and by looking at research into how teens operate mentally and physically, we can uncover how these forces accumulate to shape teens’ behavior.

Our guest this week is Malin Gutestam, a researcher and educator who has worked extensively with adolescents to uncover how teens can not only improve their mood but also find success in their endeavors. She’s the author of Brain Tools for Teens, a guide to teen psychology and biology that focuses on helping teens understand their own form and function to increase performance on everything from academics to athletics. The book is chock full of well-researched advice about how teens can be happy, healthy, and learn effectively.

One key idea Malin focuses on is the value of educating teens about the science of their own minds and bodies. For example, if we simply tell teens to sleep more, they’ll likely just end up staying awake until midnight playing Minecraft yet again. But if we can teach them how sleeping more will allow them to lead a more productive and happy life, they might be more likely to tuck themselves in by ten pm. 

In the episode, Malin discusses the psychological occurrences that can cause teens to act up, and explains some of her research on the value of sleep, and mindfulness.

The Science Behind Your Teen’s Stress

It can sometimes feel as though your teen lives in a melodrama, when they turn every small event into a spectacle of emotion. While you may think they’re just being theatrical, there’s actually some science behind why they have such intense reactions to seemingly insignificant stuff. 

Malin explains in the episode how the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which analyzes our surroundings for potential threats, is not quite developed fully until humans reach adulthood. That means for teenagers, telling the difference between a serious concern and a minor blip is not as easy as it is for adults.

This also means teens are more likely to get overwhelmed by all the things in their lives that threaten them or stress them out, and they’re not always the best at solving problems. In the episode, Malin discusses steps you can take to help them work through their feelings when they’re making mountains out of molehills.

She also shares how we can help our teens take their seemingly negative stress and use it positively. Physiologically, the nervousness we feel when we have an important test is the same sensation we experience when we’re about to sing for a crowd or jump out on the soccer field. In our conversation we discuss how teens can channel their anxiety into something more positive and productive.

When it comes to regulating emotions and improving performance, there’s another very important physical factor:  sleep.

How Sleeping Leads to Success

We all know that sleeping more helps us have more energy, but what scientific ideas about sleep can we share with our kids to help them understand it’s value? One thing Malin speaks thoroughly about in the episode is sleep’s connection to memory.

When we sleep, our body shifts through the day’s memories, like you might shift through shows on Netflix–and just like you might use your remote to save a show to watch for later, the brain stores some memories as useful for the long term. Your brain keeps important information ( a due date for a new project, the name of someone you met, or maybe even a memorable  moment with a friend) and ditches the mundane stuff (what you had for breakfast, the songs you heard on the radio as you drove to the store).

This process, known as “consolidation,” is super valuable when it comes to tests and examinations. Malin discusses how a good night’s sleep can lead to better scores on an evaluation. However, if we fail to get adequate rest, we can mess up this consolidation process–leading us to perform poorly when it comes to retaining information.

Now, whether we’re a developing teen or a fully grown adult, we’ve all stayed up late trying to stuff information into our brains-to “cram” before the next day. Malin explains how, although we think this may help us achieve greater results on our exam, our lack of sleep is actually severely detrimental to our memory. 

Malin offers a great solution to this problem in the episode. She also talks at length about how not sleeping affects metabolism, and therefore mood. If teens can get more sleep, they can enter their day with more energy, but in order to truly thrive, they’ll have to learn how to harness that energy and use it to  better themselves. This is where Malin dives into the importance of self awareness.

The Transformative Power of Self Awareness

Although there are varying definitions of the term “self awareness”,  Malin uses it to describe the ways we pause, slow down, and reflect during our daily lives. Teens these days have got a lot of distractions–they carry around tiny computers in their pockets and can conjure up anything they think of with just a quick google search–but with the right techniques, they can find ways to center themselves and return their focus back to what’s important.

Because she knows that teens (and parents) are pretty busy, she suggests short little exercises that can help promote self awareness and tranquility. She cites some of her research, a brief study about how mindfulness can help teens improve their focus during exams. In the study, adolescents who were about to take a math test were told to close their eyes and focus on their breathing for a full minute. At the end, a majority of the teens said this short activity greatly improved their focus.

Malin suggests implementing this in your family in small, accessible ways. For example, before eating together, try taking a minute to close your eyes and just breathe, bringing your thoughts back to your breath when you start to get carried away by your anxieties or distractions.

 Although it may seem a little out of the ordinary to sit with your family in silence, it’s a nice way to incorporate reflection and mindfulness into your day and–bonus points–can help you eat mindfully instead of  shoveling food into your mouth (which we all tend to do occasionally, especially when we’re busy or stressed). When we prioritize self awareness, we further our own well-being, and allow ourselves to reach our full potential

In the Episode…

Malin and I chat about all sorts of ways we can help teenagers prosper by helping them learn about their bodies and minds. In addition to the topics mentioned above, we discuss:

  • How teen’s developing brains interpret emotion
  • The grade-changing benefits of proper sleep
  • What exercise does to the brain, not just the body
  • How studying in groups can help teens learn more effectively
  • The importance of incorporating mini-mindfulness practices

We enjoyed having Malin on the show this week! Don’t forget to subscribe and we’ll see you next week.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Encourage your teen to swap negative stress talk to positive challenge talk:

“Next time you have an exam, [try saying] “I am so charged” instead of saying “I’m so nervous.” And think about what your brain and body is actually doing: it’s helping you. Your heart rate is beating a bit faster, you get more oxygen, you’re getting more prepared to do what you’re supposed to do.”

-Malin Gutestam

2. Get your teen to think about how to improve next time:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Dedicate a Workspace for Your Teen

As discussed with Malin, there are a lot of extra distractions teens face when sitting down to study. Not only do they have multiple online portals to check–from library search engines, to shared classroom online folders, to group chats with classmates–there are nearly unlimited distractions. Getting pinged from incoming text messages or family members interrupting with questions about dinner or weekend plans. Unfortunately, increased distractions means a decrease in ability to get tasks done correctly and in a timely manner, not to mention how difficult staying focused is.

To help set your teen up for success, imagine the perfect “office” space for them. With your teen, brainstorm a list of needs and wants for a new workspace. You can ask you teen to think about a time when they got a lot of work done and didn’t feel exhausted. Use what happened in that instance to start your lists. Consider things like stand-up desks and ergonomic keyboards and mice.  Then, find a place in your home where you can make the workspace a reality. Maybe it’s a shared dedicated office, or just a corner of your teen’s room. With so many people not just working from home but doing school from home, this exercise could be vital for a teen’s academic future—and parents’ sanity! 

2. Mini-Mindfulness Breaths

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So talk to me a little bit about this book, Brain Tools for Teens. It seems like if anyone needs some brain tools, teens are probably up towards the top of the list of good candidates. Are there not good books out there on this, or are there not good brain tools for teens? Or why did we need this new method from you?

Malin: Well, I’ve been working in senior high school for a long time. And after about 10 years of teaching, physical activity, health projects, and also learning to learn strategies to students, I had also actually taught teachers because they were interested in physical activity and the connection to learning. So I was looking for something. I wanted to find out more and I was looking for a university course, and ideally it would have been about teens, teen brains, learning, and physical activity, but there wasn’t anything in neuroscience like that. Well, there was more in medicine and I found one course, a post-graduate course, in the neuroscience of leadership. And I thought, “Why not? I’m so interested in the brain. Let’s go for that.”

Malin: So I started, and the people I was studying with were amazing executive coaches, CEOs of great companies, managers and leaders of different organizations. And we studied the leadership brain. We looked at problem-solving, decision-making, emotional regulation, we looked at the corporation, and we also looked at coping with change. And after a while, I realized, “Hey, my students who are now 16, going to wait until they’re 40 or 50 until they will be able to learn something about their brains.” So there and then, I actually decided that my focus was going to be on the future leadership brain. All teenagers out there, because there was so much value in this information that I found, that I could give my teens. So when I finished the course, I was able to actually create the course for teens and try it out as a pilot study. So I taught them brain health and learning strategies, and we tested before perceived stress and mental wellbeing, and afterwards. And I actually kept doing this for three years with new groups and control groups.

Malin: There was a lot of teens passing by. And the interesting thing was that in the group that participated and did the course about the brain, their stress levels, the perceived stress was reduced and increased mental wellbeing. And in the control group, it was the opposite. So with that wealth of information, I felt like I wanted to share. And I wanted specifically to share it with teens because I don’t think there’s so many books for teens. They have for teachers, they have for parents, they have for adults. But this information is so important to reach teens today, so that’s why I wrote this book.

Andy: So what do we need to know about the teenage brain?

Malin: One thing that happens is that when a child grows up before reaching the teen age, there are actually lots, an abundance of connections between brain cells. There’re actually way many more than is needed. So in the teen years, there’s something called, pruning going on and pruning is those neurocircuits that are used, they get strengthened. And the others that are not used, they get eliminated. And that makes the brain much more efficient in what it’s doing, but it also makes it important, what do we do with during the teen years? What metrics are we actually strengthening? Another thing that’s happening is the brain matures from the neck to the frontal lobe, the forehead. And about the age of puberty, it reaches the limbic system. This is that system deep in the brain, in the temporal lobe. And it’s involved in emotions, in memory, long-term memory, and also the reward system.

Malin: So this matures early and the control system in the brain, which is actually behind the forehead, it is not fully matured until we’re about 25 and 30. So emotions, the reward system makes teens more prone to taking risks. So that can be one explanation. And also, being very emotional is because the control system that actually regulates emotion isn’t really in place. And the last part I find very interesting is actually the reward system. Because the reward system changes during the teen years. So they are more drawn to everything that they consider rewards, and that could be anything from good food and money and sex to actually social rewards too.

Andy: Yeah, or good grades.

Malin: Or good grades. It could be anything that they find rewarding.

Andy: You have a whole chapter in here on sleep and how sleep is really important for the teen brain. Also, with some really interesting studies and statistics, and one of the important points that you make is about memory and how sleep works together with memory, which I think is really important. And I wish I would’ve known about, when I was studying and younger. And I think one of the most practical things to know is how to make your studying and learning as efficient as possible. And I noticed a few places in this book where you provide some stuff that could really help with that, and this was one of them. So can you talk a little bit about the link between sleep and memory?

Malin: Yes, I can. And that’s really one of the things got so exciting with this course, because what I realized was that I have, for such a long time been teaching health to teens. And some listen, some don’t. But when we’re talking about the brain, then they listen to everything that had to do with health. And it was so connected to learning that this is such an easy way to access teen’s interest.

Malin: Well, sleep and memory. When we sleep, the short-term memories, the memories that we have started to gather during the day, they’re actually sorted through in the short-term memory. And those, it’s actually moved over to the long-term memory, and that’s called consolidation. And that happens when we sleep and we need to sleep properly for that to happen. And that’s something that when students understand, they also realize that the stress that they have up to exams really makes things so much worse and they realize that maybe they only retain 40 percent of what they could have, if they had slept properly. So we talk about the best way of actually using sleep before exams. And that is to have at least one day, be finished with your revision one day before.

Andy: Oh, that’s nice.

Malin: Yes. And the day before, you just have a short revision, take care of yourself, exercise, eat well, and go to bed and sleep, so that your stress levels don’t interfere with the memory consolidation during the night.

Andy: Wow. That’s savvy. I like that a lot. Okay then, on the flip side of that, you write about sleep deprivation and how getting too little or low quality sleep will negatively affect academic performance. And also, it will curb your metabolism, becoming slower and less effective, which makes us more stressed, impatient, irritable, and impulsive. So a lot of, I guess, really negative side-effects of not getting enough sleep are a lot of the things that cause grief in households with teenagers being cranky and having stress, impatience, irritability, impulsiveness. These are kind of all the complaints parents have about teenagers. And here you are saying, “These are actually results of not getting enough sleep.”

Malin: Yep. Well, we can actually look at ourselves and we also have that behavior when we don’t sleep enough. But for teens to understand that I think it’s important, and what they really take with them, I think in this is, is that when they don’t sleep enough they are more negative. Because the brain goes kind of into survival mode. You don’t learn as much, but in front of your friends, you can be more negative. And they don’t like that. In front of their friends they want to be their best so that they’re like, “Ooh, we should sleep more.”

Malin: And then the problem is that they go home and they say, “I have to sleep more.” And so instead of going to bed and falling asleep at midnight, they say, “I have to go to sleep at 10.” So they go to bed and they are wide awake and they stare up in the ceiling and they get really stressed. And that’s a problem because we have to talk about habits and what the brain is used to. But what we do talk about then is actually, “Begin at midnight and just move 20 minutes. So then you go 20 to 12, you fall asleep. And then when that works and that’s a habit, then you move another 20 minutes, and another 20 minutes.” So you can work with your rhythm so that’s better.

Andy: That’s cool. That’s smart. And that’s just good advice for trying to change any habit. Little by little is great way to do it.

Malin: Exercise is really important. And we talk about not only exercise, we talk about daily movements. And I find this … Again and again, we often tell the kids and teens what to do, but when we tell them the research and the science behind it, and then provide them the different alternatives of simple steps that they can choose from, it’s much easier to reach them, and then go away and try them and come back again. So there’s the exercise part. And I mean, that’s amazing for the brain. There are so many benefits with exercise and it also increases your sleep quality. So if you should start somewhere, you start with exercise and it affects your sleep. But exercise creates new blood vessels in the brain which is great for brain function and for brain health. And also, it increases the production of new cells in the hippocampus, the area which is involved in long-term memory.

Malin: And we really like that when we get older, that our hippocampus has many cells. So exercise helps us to increase the production there. It helps new cells to survive, and it also helps the cells to connect to each other, which is good for learning. It’s good for memory. So for teens, it’s more a question of looking at, “How can I incorporate this in my daily life?” So one part, yes, is exercise and power walking is fine. We can talk about getting your heart rate up, and that gets oxygen circulating. So you don’t really have to go to the gym and work it out. You can do it, like you can jump up and down with them, and do things like that, or dance, which is amazing.

Andy: Oh, there you go.

Malin: Yeah. But it’s also the way you go to and from school, if you can affect that, you can walk or bike. But when you’re studying, incorporate physical movements in the breaks, and that will keep you awake and also help you to be more alert and easier way to learn things.

Andy: Yeah. I like that you wrote in here that, the brain works on 90-minute cycles, according to one of the first sleep researchers, Nathaniel Chapman. And that’s why we kind of end up feeling tired at the end of each 90 minute cycle, which we sometimes just ignore and press on, but definitely, using those signals as times to take a break, to get up and stretch and get some little weights around, have something to do. And that’s hard as a teenager if you’re stuck in school, but it does seem like usually there’s at least … You’d get up and change classes or something every 90 minutes or so. So there’s at least a break and you can kind of even do some little jump around and shake yourself out as you’re kind of going between classes.

Malin: And I think also that in evolution, maybe the 90-minute cycles were perfect for us, but when we focus so much and we strain our abilities, we use our brain in different ways with computers and laptops, and learning and screens. We need breaks more often than not actually. They don’t have to be long, but we actually need brakes for the body too. So just standing up, breathing, looking away for a couple of minutes, having a glass of water and sitting down again, it’s much better than not doing anything.

Andy: And thinking about having a good workstation for your teenager to be able to work at, somewhere they can maybe stand while they work or have a standing desk or a nice ergonomic things for them to do. And maybe fun things to be able to get up and have breaks like a little trampoline you could bounce on or some little weights, or something like that. And things to encourage taking those breaks and getting exercise and being physical is all good.

Malin: Yeah. Because it’s something we have to learn to … How to take breaks. We usually take forget to take breaks or teens that I meet in senior high school when they come, they usually think that they should sit and press on for as long as possible.

Andy: Yeah. Just need to focus and press through.

Malin: Yeah. It makes you lazy or something like that. And when they really get into the science subjects and they have maths and they have to study really hard, they get so tired and frustrated. But when they realize how to take breaks short and often, and they do it in the right way so they don’t go and sit down with their screens again with that.

Andy: Yeah, that doesn’t count as a break.

Malin: They have to realize that for themselves. So they really have to try it out.

Andy: There’s another interesting study that you talk about in here. It’s about a group of teenagers and adults, and they’re shown pictures with different facial expressions like anger and fright, and the teenagers had more emotional reaction to the pictures. And also for them, it was harder for them to interpret what emotion was being portrayed compared to the adults. And they, interestingly we’re using a different part of their brain to interpret and react to the images. So what’s going on there and why is there those big differences?

Malin: Well, during the teen years, the networks that are in charge of … We understand ourselves and others, they develop. And we also learn very much from face-to-face interaction with people to interpret facial expressions, their body language, kind of social skills that are very important for relationships. Now with screens and texting, a part of that was taken away. They don’t practice as much, but it can be that when you’re …. Especially in your younger teens, that it can be more difficult. I, at least have met the teens that they tell you off. And they like, “Don’t look at me!” And it seems as if they can’t interpret what kind of emotion I have. So maybe that could be one thing that these networks are developing during this time.

Andy: How do we help that development along or what causes that to progress more effectively?

Malin: Well, it is a bit harder for the brain to learn this through a screen. I mean, we can still see part of a person but even if we can see the face of someone, we can’t see the body. So I think the brain has to work a bit harder to actually understand what people are portraying when you see them on a screen. So it is important for teens to have the interaction where they actually meet and also to interact with adults, because then they learn more about what we do. It’s a kind of role modeling.

About Malin Gutestam

Malin is the author of Brain Tools for Teens (Oct. 13th). The information in the book is based on her research and pilot study Young Brains, for which she received the Weekend Prize, Sweden’s highest award for teachers. 

Malin has been working as a high school teacher for many years and lectures to the business community, university students, interest groups, authorities, educators and parents about modern brain research and how it can be applied to create better conditions for thinking, learning and creative processes. She has a master’s degree in Neuroscience in Leadership from Middlesex University in England and is a graduate in Brain Based Coaching.

Mother of three grown children, Malin lives in Helsingborg, Sweden with her husband. 

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