Ep 24: Adolescent Neuroscience

Episode Summary

Lucy Maddox, author of Blueprint: How Childhood Makes Us Who We Are, discusses the fascinating science of why social experiences are also heightened during the teenage years. In this episode she reveals what you should teach your teen about friendships and relationships.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

After all these years, you think you’d know your kid, but there seems to be no end to the surprises, bombshells, and blind turns! Just when you assume your teenager will behave one way, they start doing what you’d never expect. As a parent, you know that teens make often make irresponsible decisions, change their opinions like T-shirts, and behave in ways that generally don’t seem to make any sense at all.

So. what the heck is going on inside the adolescent brain?! Without knowing what’s going on under the hood, we never know if our will listen to our conversations or discount them as “uncool” before embarking on their own program. It can feel impossible to decode the adolescent brain and understand teenagers’ motivations.

However, there is a way to help the adolescent brain develop the right decision-making tools, so our teens are prepared for a life good choices. The answer comes down to having the right approach. If we can educate ourselves on the right way to talk to a teenager, we can avoid pursuing strategies that simply fail in the end.  

My guest in this episode is Lucy Maddox, author of Blueprint: How Childhood Makes Us Who We Are. She also has her own psychology practice in Bristol, England, where she works one-on-one with kids and teens every day. As a writer, university lecturer, and expert in cognitive behavioral therapy, she is a great source of knowledge for how we can understand the adolescent brain and use that understanding to become better parents.

Molding the Adolescent Brain for Success

The first thing parents need to know about molding the adolescent brain is how flexible it is. For example, Lucy’s book examines how we experience a phenomenon called an “adolescent memory bump.” This refers to the way memories from the adolescent brain are recalled much more vividly or intensely than memories of other times in our lives. The adolescent brain is very impressionable, and the experiences we have during this time can stay with us for a lifetime. That’s why it’s important to guide our teens through this period, so that they can enter into adulthood happy and functional. 

Lucy has done a lot of research into how we can shape the adolescent brain with conversations about tricky topics—with some pretty interesting results.

  She starts by critically examining how we often focus on our children’s behavior. Often, we help our kids make good choices by rewarding or punishing them for good and bad actions. Sometimes, in doing this, we forget to talk to them about the values at work behind their decisions. According to Lucy, these value discussions are some of the most important talks we can have with our kids, because they go deeper than the surface. Instead of just scolding or praising them for their behavior, we are providing them with guidelines for how to approach any situation.

It harkens back to the classic idea of teaching a man to fish. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you can teach him how to fish, he’ll be able to feed himself for the foreseeable future! If we simply tell kids how to act, our words may stick for a moment but likely will not last in their heads. By teaching your teen to have strong values, they’ll be able to evaluate situations and act according to their moral compass, even when you’re not around.

Finding Time to Talk (And Listen!)

It’s delicate, however, to find the right time to sit down with our teenagers to talk about such broad and important topics. Research shows that the adolescent brain can be pretty resistant to advice from their parents. Lucy suggests converting these conversations into bite sized pieces and slipping them in during everyday activities. Try talking to your kids about the importance of hard work while driving. Teach them about the importance of kindness while taking a weekly trip to the grocery store.

 It may seem strange, but by putting less emphasis on the discussion, your teenager is more likely to be receptive to the ideas you’re sharing.  By keeping things simple and casual, it’s easier to transmit your message to the adolescent brain. They may not even notice that you are trying to give them serious advice–and this may work to your advantage.

Even though they may be difficult, Lucy explains why these kinds of talks are extremely important for the adolescent brain. She and I discuss a study which examined the development of “grit” among teenagers, or their ability to move past obstacles with hard work and dedication. The study revealed that the more support individuals have from their community during adolescence, the more likely they are to successfully deal with hardships that come their way.

 In fact, it showed evidence that even just one strong relationship during youth helped to keep this ability to persevere strong as teens move into adulthood. As a parent, you have the chance to form that strong relationship with your teenager that will help them persist through anything.

An integral part of these discussions is taking the time to listen. Often times, we want to warn our teenagers about everything to stop them from going through all the things that we experienced at their age. While this is important, it’s very valuable to have an open mind to what your child is saying and understand that they are likely experiencing different things than you are. One thing Lucy stresses is not coming into these conversations with everything planned out, but instead letting the conversation be fluid between the two of you.

Taking Pressure off The Adolescent Brain

Remember that the adolescent brain is under enormous amounts of pressure nowadays. Teenagers have to make decisions on a daily basis about their social lives, academics, and extracurriculars. They’re considering the future, trying to decide who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do with themselves. Everything feels so intense during this period, your teen may feel that one wrong decision can ruin their life. They may need to talk to you about all this confusion and fear.

Lucy stresses the importance of reminding them that life is long, and not every choice is as important as it seems. She also promotes the idea of helping your teen identify the positive and negative consequences of every decision. This is another good behavior to teach them that they can carry with them as they go forward in life.

According to Lucy, this idea of evaluating pros and cons is helpful for stopping bad behavior as well. Instead of telling a teenager that smoking weed is wrong, talk to them about what happens when they decide to partake in the drug. While they will feel temporary relief from anxiety or may seem cool to their friends (pros), they risk becoming dependent on the substance, becoming distracted, or doing regrettable things under the influence (cons). By addressing the pros along with the cons, you’re showing your teenager that you understand, instead of just bossing them around.

In the episode, Lucy discusses these ideas and more. She breaks down just how the adolescent brain is thinking. Although it may seem like an unsolvable puzzle, Lucy has decided to share her secrets with us. She’s here to break down specific methods of talking to your teenager to help guide them through changes to come out as a happy, healthy adult.

But there’s more! Listen in to hear more about:

  • How you can teach your teenager social skills
  • How our perception of time is different as an adolescent
  • How to help your teenager with decision making
  • Helping teenagers weigh pros and cons
  • Teenage theory of mind
  • How to help kids with computer problems

Happy listening! We’ll see you next week.

Parenting Scripts

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

1. When a teenager is wrestling with a difficult decision:

“Even though this might seem life-or-death, there will be other opportunities to come back onto that path perhaps or to make a different decision. Nothing is set in stone completely.”

-Lucy Maddox

2.  How to affirm your teen while making it clear you don’t condone drug use:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

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

1.  Walk Your Teen Through Big Decisions:

For important or difficult decisions, Lucy recommended writing down the short-term and long-term pros and cons of the decision with your teenager and then leaving the final choice up to them. This approach is brilliant because the teenage brain is naturally wired to focus on short-term consequences and ignore long-term ones. This decision-making setup helps your teen get in the habit of consciously considering the long-term effects of every important decision they make. To get yourself some practice with this before you try to do it with your teen, use a blank sheet of paper to map out the short and long-term pros and cons for a decision you are currently struggling with in your own life.

2.  Find the “Why” to Get Your Teen to Stop:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So this book is a beast. It must have taken you so much time to write. I mean, the notes section is staggering, what on earth inspired you to want to do that to yourself?

Lucy: I actually really loved writing it. I got the idea for, I think, because I lectured for five years at the Anna Freud center in London. It’s part of University College London. Lectured on child development and also convened other lecturers to come and speak about it. So I was always, I guess, always relating some of the experiments, both to my clinical practice with teenagers and young people, but also to myself, narcissistically. So thinking about how our childhoods shape us later on, and also how it’s not quite set in stone, I think. So I really enjoyed drawing out some of the really juicy experiments that I thought were the things that everyone should know about that we don’t all get taught about at school, sadly.

Andy: It’s funny that you mentioned that, because having studied a lot of developmental psychology, I found an interesting mix of stuff that I had heard about before, but that you have updated with all the newest research on it and put it into a new context that I hadn’t seen before. So really cool. It gives you this incredible overview of the lifespan. And the short answer is it’s complicated how our childhood makes us who we are. But I wanted to focus specifically on the adolescent years. You have a chapter on teenagers and there’s also some goodies sprinkled throughout the book about teenagers. The teenage brain, teenagers and their theory of mine, all of that good stuff. So let’s dive in.

Andy: One thing that I’m really big on is how parents can teach teenagers social skills or help teenagers to build skills that will help them to build a peer group that will be more supportive and not be pulling them in negative directions and stuff that. You had a section in here called the skills of friendship, and a part of it is about this idea that we tend to like people who are funny. So there’s this impulse that, if we want people to like us, that we try to be funny and we try to make them laugh. But maybe that’s not the best approach. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Lucy: Sure. Is that the interview with Christina Spears Brown that you’re looking at there?

Andy: Kennedy Moore.

Lucy: Oh, great. Yeah. Okay. So yeah. She talks really nicely about how it’s easy sometimes for children to want to fit in and follow the lead of their peers. So exactly like you say, trying to be funny, trying to make a joke. But sometimes that can go a little bit wrong. As grown ups we know sometimes a joke can fall flat as well, and you can accidentally end up being a bit offensive. So instead she talks, in that interview, about really trying to be kind, because you can’t really make a mistake with kindness. You can’t really get kindness wrong. Which I think is really valuable advice for the whole of our lives actually.

Andy: So in reading this, it makes me think how would you introduce this idea to a teenager? Because the key to giving advice to teenagers is that they don’t like to receive advice.

Lucy: It’s a tricky one.

Andy: I know, as a teenager, if my mom would have been telling me advice on how to make friends, I probably would reject that. So I always try to think of ways that things could be framed in a non reactance inducing manner. I wonder how we could get this value of kindness, or teach that lesson to a teenager, without maybe saying it directly?

Lucy: I think often it’s really helpful when teenagers have already brought up a tricky subject and then you got it up your sleeve really to come in with. I think often when you’re driving along in the car, or doing something else, it’s quite a good time to be offering a small bite sized piece of advice. Because that’s the time when you’re not looking directly at each other, but you’ve got something else to focus on. Somehow the pressure’s kind of taken off and these kinds of situations, I think. But I think as well, if you can relate it to the here and now for teenagers, and to their peer group. How they have felt when a friend has made a joke which perhaps has missed the mark a little bit. Often that can feel really horrible when that happens to us. So trying to frame it in those terms. To encourage the young person to think from that point of view, really, about you can’t really get it so wrong if you’re just really looking out for someone and trying to be kind.

Andy: It’s hard not to like someone who’s just trying to be nice to you, right?

Lucy: Yeah, exactly.

Andy: I like this idea of always trying to have things up your sleeve. So where do you find things like that? And how detailed would you plan them? Because you want to be spontaneous. You don’t want to have a memorized… Because I feel like, as parents, that’s how… A lot of times what we do, we have something that’s so important that we want to communicate. Like, “Oh, hey, I need to teach my teenager about how to make friends by being nice to people.” And so planning like, “How am I going to say this?” But so there’s a fine line to walk between thinking about it or planning a little bit, that this is a topic that you want to talk about or lesson that you want to teach, but then not necessarily planning it to the extent of, “Okay, today I’m going to tell her this thing and use these words.” Okay. So those things up your sleeve, what level of detail do you think you would use for those?

Lucy: I guess it varies parent to parent, how much people like to really plan stuff. As a professional as well, actually, if you go into a session with a young person and you’ve really got a really strong idea in your mind of the agenda that you want to talk about in that session, the risk then is that you don’t listen well enough to what actually they are bringing, which is the most important thing actually. So it’s so hard, isn’t it, for parents? They want to impart all this life advice and make sure that their young person has really got the hang of some crucial stuff.

Lucy: But actually there is a lot to be said for just listening really, really carefully, I think. And being able to really sit alongside whatever the dilemma is that the young person is experiencing. Because we can often overlay things that were told with our own experiences anyway. So it was quite easy to get the wrong end of the stick. Particularly if you’re coming in with a plan of, “I must tell you this, about this experience. I must make sure you avoid this mistake that I made.” Sometimes that can just be quite overwhelming actually.

Andy: But for some reason it seems so important to us or life or death as parents that we need to tell him this thing. And it’s funny that you mentioned that about you’re saving them from something that happened to me, because there’s this idea that you talk about in your book that I thought was really cool about reminiscing. I think you call it the reminiscence bump. This idea that adolescence is kind of this time that we do remember so many more things that happened to us. You talk about how even when you ask people to remember things from their life, they tend to remember things from adolescence. Can you walk me through that a little bit? Why is that and how does that work?

Lucy: It’s weird actually. Yeah. So if you ask older people, if they can name their favorite biscuit or if they can name their favorite tune from the whole of their lives, often people pick stuff from their teenage years. They’re not entirely sure why, but some researchers think that it’s because this is a time when memories are laid down with more importance and it’s when our identity is formed. This kind of chimes into this fairly old theory really about how our identity is formed in adolescents. Which I think we have to hold quite lightly, because I think there’s other research that suggests that, in fact, our identities carry on forming much, much later and are much more flexible than people thought initially. But perhaps that can also be quite helpful for parents to know and to remember, that some of their older ideas about identity being formed in adolescents and then that’s it have actually… They’ve not totally stood the test of time really. So it’s all right to make mistakes actually in adolescents. And in fact is crucial, it’s how we learn.

Andy: I read something interesting in a book called Moonwalking with Einstein, which is about memory. One of the characters talks about this interesting idea that our perception of the passing of time is related to how many memories there are during that time. So if you could cram each year with a bunch more really strong memories then it would make his life seem a lot longer when he looked back on it later on, which I thought was such a cool idea. When I read their book, it made me think about that. It made me think about how maybe the reason that, when you ask people to answer questions about what’s your favorite this and what’s your favorite that, they choose these ones from the teenage years because they have a lot more memories or because the ones that they do have are so much more vivid.

Lucy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s often the first time we experienced lots of things actually isn’t it. So I guess those initial memories can be really, really intense-

Andy: You haven’t habituated to it yet or yeah, yeah, right. And that they’re really strong or something. So you have a section in here called underlying values and compassion. It’s pretty short, a page long section. You talk about basically the importance of getting in touch with the underlying values, underlying our general direction of travel in life. Focusing on what you’re prioritizing as a family and trying to get in touch with the bigger values that inform our thinking is really important. It’s a short section, but I wonder if you could talk about what made you write that and why you think that’s so important?

Lucy: Yeah, sure. So that’s at the end of the chapter, all about behavioral principles. The chapter that I call how to train a person, which is about how to help shape a young person’s behavior. I guess, in a way that you think is prosocial or helpful for the young person. So rewarding them for doing stuff that you want to see more of and rewarding them less for stuff that you don’t want to see. But I wanted to put the values bit in, because I think that can sometimes really get lost if we’re only looking at behavioral approaches to managing how we want somebody to be growing. And actually the values that underpin how we want to live our lives, and how we want to bring up the young people in our lives, I think, are really, really crucial.

Lucy: I think we don’t always have enough time and space to really consider the values that we want to live our lives by. And these sorts of conversations, I think, can be really productive actually to have as parents, as professionals with young people. To try and get in touch with, well what is it that we want to be aiming for? What do we want to be doing? Not in a goals kind of achievement sense, but more in a, “What am I standing for?”

Andy: Yeah. What’s important. That’s another thing to have up your sleeves and be ready to talk about as a parent, right? So what would be maybe a time when you could try to sneak that kind of thing in there or something?

Lucy: To sneak it in. I suppose, conversations about values. I think they can happen at all sorts of points, but I think they often come up when we’re making decisions about things. Because I think decision points can sometimes really reveal our values, almost put them in relief. Young people today have to make an awful lot of decisions actually at very, very early ages. When you think about decisions about what subjects to study at school, what exams to take, what classes to take, which friends to hang out with, whether to go to a party or not, what to do at that party. If you can get into some conversations that are a bit more about values in a truly curious way. So not imposing your values on your young person, but saying, “Well, how do you want to handle this? What’s important to you about it? How would you to be?” I think that can be a really helpful scaffold to give the young person to start to think about how they want to be, who they want to be.

Andy: Yeah. That’s really cool. I think you’re right, because I even deal with this. We’re just working on a paper right now. You get all this data, and you have to try and figure out what model to use, and how to present it. So we just were meeting about this paper we’re working with and trying to figure out which of these things do we include. We had to come back to like, “Okay, well, what’s the big idea? What do we want to say with this?” Just you were saying, we were trying to make a decision and in order to make the decision, we had to open the lens a little bit to what is our value here. I wonder if, yeah, looking for times when your teenager is making a decision, or is in the midst of a decision, and then trying to tie those options down to, “Well, every decision says something about you. What would that say?”

Lucy: Yeah. That’s really nice, the expression you use there, widening the lens. I guess it’s like taking a step back, isn’t it? Sometimes we can all benefit from taking a bit of a step back and thinking, “Okay, which direction do I want to go in now and why?” I suppose as well, particularly with decisions also, there’s something for parents maybe about being able to take that longer view as well. And reminding young people that actually, even though a decision might feel the most important decision at that moment, there’ll be other opportunities to come back onto that path perhaps, or to make a different decision. Nothing is set in stone completely.

Andy: So there’s a lot of talk these days about grit, and resilience, and perseverance, and how our kids don’t have enough of it. You have a section on this that’s really interesting in the book. Who’s this person? McCrory, that you’re interviewing.

Lucy: Amman McCrory. Yeah.

Andy: Yes. You’re talking about this idea that people tend to locate resilience in the child, rather than maybe focusing more on the community or the network that the child finds himself in. Can you explain what you mean by that and how that might work in adolescents?

Lucy: I actually think this is a really exciting idea, because it opens up opportunities for anybody who is involved in young people’s lives.

Andy: Yeah. Because, your environment, I can change that. I can’t change what’s inside you. But I can’t, right? So, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So if there’s resilience that’s located out here, we’ve got to figure that out.

Lucy: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. That’s a real opportunity for us to try and do something. So both Ammen McCrory and also Peter Fonagy in the interviews I did for the book, they both talk about this idea that the community actually is implicated in resilience. There’s a lot of talk about how resilient somebody is to adverse experiences that happened to them. But actually, if you think about it from a more systemic point of view, from a more community point of view, what is it that the community can do to connect with that person and to help?

Lucy: A lot of the research, the longitudinal studies that are really fab, there’s a brilliant one done in the islands of Hawaii, which followed a cohort for a really, really long time. They found that even just having one relationship that was important to a child, even if they’d experienced incredible adversity, they could come through that. And that you can think about… Maybe that’s to do with factors within the child, but that’s also a lot to do with the community that the child is living in. And it makes me think, well, that’s a huge opportunity for anybody who has a child in their life to know that they can really make a huge difference, actually.

Andy: All it takes is one. So you talk about a study conducted in 2010, by researchers in Germany. They followed nearly a hundred adolescents, 52 girls, 41 boys over 10 years. Starting at age 15 to age 25. And they found that their sense of self, how strong of an identity they had, at age 15 predicted the strength of their relationships at age 25.

Lucy: Oh, is that the one about romantic relationships?

Andy: [crosstalk] Yes. Yes. So people who had a less strong sense of their own identity as teenagers had more superficial and less deep romantic relationships 10 years later. What the heck is going on, and can you walk me through that a little bit?

Lucy: Yeah. It’s quite complex, because I suppose the bit that we don’t know there… So yeah, absolutely. As you say, sense of self as a teenager linked to quality of romantic relationships later on. What we don’t know there, as well, is the family setup of those adolescents. So the influences from their earlier childhoods, which would be really interesting to know. And may well have influenced their sense of self, as well as influencing their romantic relationships.

Lucy: But I suppose it’s really, again, really important to notice just how important our sense of self in a relationship is. Because it’s really hard to relate to another person in a way in which you’re still feeling on an even keel yourself, if you don’t have a sense of what your own personal boundaries are and what you want out of a relationship, what you want to say yes to or no to, and how to do that. So anything that we do that is fostering a young person’s sense of their own self is in a way helping them with their relationships later on, is what that study suggests to me.

About Lucy Maddox

A consultant clinical psychologist, lecturer, and writer, Lucy has lectured and developed content for a range of universities on topics like adolescence, psychological interventions for self-harm, psychosis, compassion fatigue in the helping professions, neuroimaging in the media, and a variety of other topics.

Lucy has always been interested in science communication and she enjoys writing about science for the general public. She has written for a range of publications including The GuardianProspectMosaic, and Science magazine. She blogs as Psychology Magpie and for Huffington Post. Her book, Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are, was released in March 2018.

Find Lucy on Twitter.