Ep 61: Your Teen’s Brain-Body Type

Episode Summary

Dr. Robert Keith Wallace, author of Dharma Parenting and an expert in the physiology-psychology connection, joins us for a lively discussion on how your teen’s (and your) brain-body type may be affecting your relationship. Dr. Wallace clues us into the scientifically backed Ayurvedic doshas – vata, pitta, and kapha – and how to deal with each type. 

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Parents Just Don’t Understand

Maybe you love that your teen is a free spirit who dances to the beat of their own drum—but would it kill them to not leave every room in complete shambles? Maybe you love that your teen is so laid-back and easy going—until you leave them at home all day to finish their essay and when you return, they’re still watching TV and haven’t even written a word. Of course you love your teen with every fiber of your being, but that doesn’t mean you love everything they do. You want to encourage your kids to follow their instincts and be themselves but you get so exasperated when they insist on doing things the exact opposite way you would. 

Any attempt at understanding the teenage brain seems laughable and impossible. Every teenager is different, some let rejection roll off their back and others burst into tears when you give them the tiniest bit of criticism. Maybe all it takes for your daughter to get over a breakup is a fun filled day of shopping at the mall. But for your son, a breakup may send him into a spiral that’ll take him weeks to get out of. They might not believe it, you were once the same hormonal, moody, and angsty teenager as they are. But was understanding the teenage brain this difficult for your parents? How do your teens have half your DNA yet react to things so differently?

What if there was a way of understanding the teenage brain that could make miscommunications between you and your teen obsolete (or at least a lot less frequent). Seem impossible? According to Dr. Robert Keith Wallace, it’s not. Wallace is the author of Dharma Parenting: Understand Your Child’s Brilliant Brain for Greater Happiness, Health, Success, and Fulfillment. He is a pioneer in physiology of consciousness research and has published work in the American Journal of Physiology and Scientific American. Along with his research in physiology, Wallace has studied the ancient Indian practice of Ayurveda for decades and has incorporated his findings into his book. Wallace is an expert in brain-body connections and has some excellent tips on understanding the teenage brain and stopping triggers that may be provoking your teen and you. 

Multiple Personalities

Wallace states that understanding the teenage brain using Ayurvedic practices requires you to know three main brain-body types: pitta, vata, and kapha. These are essentially personality types that dictate how people behave in different situations. Pittas are the quintessential type-A personality; they are driven, regimented, and competitive. They prefer to be in charge and don’t like to be unprepared. Vata personalities are quite the opposite; they’re free-spirited, creative, adaptable, and adventurous. They’re often the life of the party and aren’t huge fans of staying on a schedule. Kaphas are easy going, even-keeled, affectionate, and reliable. They’re textbook Type-B personalities that are easy to get along with but can easily fade into the background in social settings. Knowing these three brain-body types are beneficial in understanding the teenage brain because identifying your teen’s type and your type will make it easier to manage daily life and resolve conflicts.

Dr. Wallace can help you identify your teen’s brain-body type through his own experiences with his teens. He recognizes the telltale signs that you might not notice in your family to help you understand how these temperaments really look.

After figuring out your teen’s brain-body type, you can better identify the triggers that cause them to be upset. For example, your pitta teen is furious at a boy for canceling on them last minute to go to the movies. You think “What’s the big deal, can’t they just reschedule?” Upon further reflection of their brain-body type you come to realize that pitta’s are the type to maintain a strict schedule. They are diligent about getting their school work done and want to make sure all their ducks are in a row before doing something fun and frivolous. They’re not the type to simply blow off their homework and go to the movies—and the fact that this boy told your teen last minute “Hey, I have a thing tonight and I gotta bail. You get it, right?” has put their whole night out of whack. Understanding the teenage brain by knowing your teen’s brain-body type can make it a lot easier to determine what your teen is actually upset about, especially if you are a different type yourself. 

Wallace states that the next step in understanding the teenage brain is helping your teens get along with people of alternate brain-body types. Say your daughter’s a kapha. She’s sensitive and empathetic, calm in times when everyone else is stressed, and she seems to take everything in stride. On the other hand, your son’s a vata. He’s always up for adventure, loves sharing his ideas with anyone who’ll listen, and he’s always brightening your day with his sunny disposition. As wonderful as they might be on their own, your daughter and son’s different brain-body types may cause them to butt heads. Conflict can arise when your son pressures your daughter to go to a loud concert that she feels totally out of place in. Or if your daughter forces her brother to stay in all night watching a TV marathon when he’d so rather be at the amusement park. To resolve conflicts like this, Wallace urges parents’ to act as moderators in their children’s interactions. For example, if you have a kapha child you need to make sure they have a voice in conversations, since they often let others overshadow them. For vata’s, let them speak first, so they can get all their energy and crazy ideas out of the way. For pitta’s, who tend to dominate conversations, urge them to hear out other people’s ideas before sharing their own opinions. Wallace provides other techniques for creating a harmonious balance amongst the different brain-body types in the episode. 

The Right Type of Attention

In addition to understanding the teenage brain and identifying the three main brain-body types, Wallace also discusses the importance of identifying the difference between the right and the wrong type of attention you give to your teens. Teens need positive affirmations, support, and someone to confide in. They don’t need a parent who is judgemental, hard to please, and who puts too much pressure on them. This type of negative attention can create a lack of confidence in teens and can make them believe that they are incapable of ever achieving success, which is oftentimes the opposite effect parents intended to have on their children. Wallace says though hard, there is a way for teens to recover from negative experiences and rebuild their self esteem. To hear his solution for overcoming teen abuse, tune in to the episode. 

This interview about understanding the teenage brain with Wallace also includes…

  • The power of taking a “coaching” approach to parenting
  • The 6 C’s to mentally whip through during any argument
  • The importance of teaching teens to make and break routines
  • How everyone can benefit from meditation and a good night’s sleep

Dr. Robert Keith Wallace and I had such an interesting conversation about understanding the teenage brain using Ayurvedic philosophies. I hope you find his harmonious approach to understanding the teenage brain by appreciating how different personality types can work together in a family, and in society, as refreshing as I did.

Parenting Scripts

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

1. Rather than dictating solutions, try becoming your teen’s coach:

“What do you think might help you break that habit?”

-Dr. Robert Keith Wallace

Workbook Exercises

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

1. The Power of Positive Attention:

One thing Dr. Wallace was adamant about in our interview was giving teens and kids the right kind of attention— i.e. positive and supportive attention! Dr. Wallace hammered home that negative attention literally is setting up bad wiring in the brain.
One way in which he suggested parents could start to add more positive attention to their relationship with their teens is to recognize your teen’s progress. Recognizing your teens progress has the added benefit of creating a feedback loop that rewards your teen for making gains in that area. This could be as simple as once a month acknowledging how much more mature your teen is getting. Or if they are involved in a sport, you could recognize how much they’ve improved since the beginning of last season. To get started, first write down all the activities your teen is involved in over the course of the year. Jot down any subjects you know they are in as well. Pick ten that you know your teen cares about. For each one come up with a specific “progress compliment” you could say to your teen in the coming weeks. Lastly, schedule a weekly reminder to tell, text, email, message, whatever(!) your teen that progress recognition!

2.  The 6 Cs to Turn Around Any Argument:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The book is called Dharma Parenting: Understand Your Child’s Brilliant Brain for Greater Happiness, Health, Success, and Fulfillment. And it really centers on these kind of three different brain body types that you guys have pulled from kind of some ancient Ayurvedic tradition there. And you show people how to figure out which of these three their kids are, or some combination of, and then also what you are, and then the whole book goes through that lens, different behaviors that you could get from your kids, and different strategies that you could use that would be most effective based on those kind of brain, body types. So I am super curious how you stumbled across this idea and came to think hey, this could be a new kind of method for parents.

Robert: Well, back in the ’70s, I happened to meet this famous saint, [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi 00:00:01:06], and at the same time, I was a PhD student in physiology at UCLA Brain Research Center. So I ended up doing a lot of research on meditation, on consciousness. I kind of had this total interest in consciousness, what it meant, and starting with meditation, that led me to India a number of times, and to get introduced to Ayurveda, which is their ancient system of health there. And once I got involved in it, I am a parent. I’ve got four kids with my wife, and so I’ve been through all the challenges. They’re pretty easy, actually, my kids, but I watched everybody go through everything, and it occurred to me that oh my God, I never got a manual on how to parent. Nobody told me anything. In fact, my parents weren’t particularly great. I grew up in Los Angeles in a kind of weird environment with the movie stars, and Hollywood, and all that stuff. And I just had no idea.

Robert: I went to Berkeley my first year. So that was way back in the, the crazy days. And so it never, never occurred to me what it would take to be a parent. And then you stumble upon it yourself. You’re reading stuff. You’re trying to figure it out. But once I learned Ayurveda I realized oh my God, this could be so helpful. And so I got with another, my wife and I, and another neurophysiologist, myself, we decided to write this book about parenting from the perspective of Ayurveda and also neurophysiology, so what’s going on in the brain. And Ayurveda has been going on for thousands of years, so how did they know that somebody was a Vata person? You have a kid that’s so creative, so dynamic, moving around, you can’t even hold them, and yet they do get tired a little quickly, they are sensitive, they’re the artists. And then you got the Pitta, which is the total athlete, fire. And they’re just burning for desires. They want to accomplish this. They want to accomplish that.

Robert: Then you got the Kapha, who’s the sweetest, good natured, easy going, little hard to get up in the morning, slow to get to school. And it’s like oh my God. And then there’s every combination, because you’re never one of these things, you’re always a combination. And so if you’re a Pitta parent, like, “Ah, I’ve got to have everything on time. Got to do this,” and you got a Vata kid, you got to tone down. I mean that kid needs its space. It needs to be an artist. You can’t impose all your Pitta ideas of what you want them to do, goal oriented ideas, you got to let them have their joy and just smell the roses. And it’s like that. The Kapha kid, you just can’t get them out to school. You can’t suddenly change things on them. You got to take it really slow and really carefully. And if any one of these states gets out of balance, you’re in trouble.

Robert: The Pitta kid, I mean they’re the ones that lose their temper. They’re pure fire. Fire is just pouring out of their heads, and they can’t help themselves. If you don’t feed them on time … It’s little simple tricks. You don’t feed them on time, disaster. They lose it. Something in their gut brain connection is there where somehow not having food on time triggers some neural network in their brain, which stimulates their amygdala and all those mechanisms that are there for anger and madness, and they just can’t help themselves. You give them food, no problem. Put them in the heat, either mentally or physically, boom, they have a meltdown. If you give them hot spicy foods, well, they can deal with it mostly, but if you just keep doing it over and over again, they also can have a meltdown. So the trick is keep your kid in balance, be preventative, and know what’s actually working inside them.

Robert: I mean a young child is getting millions and millions of connections every minute in their brain. Suddenly at the age of three, you have more connections in your brain than you ever have. But 10 to 17, you’re going through, what’s called neural pruning, and you’re losing these connections if you’re not using them. So the brain is also going through these phenomenal changes. You don’t even get the connections to the frontal areas of your brain, the myelinated ones, these fast connections until you’re 25 years old. So you may look like an adult, you may be behaving like an adult, but your brain’s not behaving like an adult. So a lot of things are going on that nobody tells you about. So we tried to help parents by telling them some of the things that are going on in the brain as seen by people thousands of years ago, and is seen by modern science.

Andy: I love these three, the Vata, the Pitta, and the Kapha. How did they discover these? Or where did these come from?

Robert: They go really deep. I mean they have kind of a different view of the universe. They see everything as emerging from consciousness, and they see sort of matter emerging from consciousness. So these are primal forces that are in nature, and the wind and space are Vata, and the fire and a little water is Pitta, and then the earth and space, that’s Kapha. So they see these things as being like Chinese medicine. They look at it very fundamental, and they govern everything in the physiology. So every type of pain you experience, every kind of communication in the body, that’s all Vata. It’s moving quick, very sensitive. Pitta is all the digestion, all the metabolism, then Kapha’s all the bones and structure. But nowadays people have actually studied these things from a modern perspective, and they find that a Vata person has different genes expressed as a Pitta person. They have a different microbiome. They have different physiological characteristics. So there is a real scientific validity, but this is something that people just figured out thousands of years ago, and it’s sort of time tested over a long, long time. So it’s pretty cool stuff.

Robert: And it’s getting recognized by science, and people now know that diet’s really important. Whatever you eat, food is medicine. And these guys knew that years ago. So it’s like we’re rediscovering some ancient truths that just weren’t there before. And it gives you tricks. If you have two teenagers, and let’s say they’re starting a love affair, and you got one guy that’s the Pitta, and he’s the athlete, he’s out there hiking, or rock climbing, or whatever. He can stand the cold. He doesn’t care how cold it is. He walks out there. And then he’s got this Vata girlfriend, who’s very slender and beautiful, and she’s very delicate and very artistic, but she’s always turning up the heat. So they’re in this constant conflict. One is freezing all the time, the other is overheated. And as long as they’re imbalanced, it’s power, it’s like the wind fueling a fire, but they get out of balance, and man, that fire gets out of control, and they started arguing, and start going crazy. And it’s just a formula for disaster.

Robert: So again, simple little tricks to keep them in balance. And it’s their kind of lifestyle things, whether it’s diet, or health, or meditation, or stress management, they’re just things that Ayurveda knew about a long time ago, exercise, that somehow we forgot, or we never figured out, and so we live in this world of kind of confusion where we have this incredible physiology, but no operating manual to understand how it really works.

Andy: I’d love to just make sure that people know about teencounseling.com. That’s where I recommend people go to find the right counselor or therapist for your teenager. They’ll get matched up with someone right on their smartphone, they can start communicating within 24 hours. Teencounseling.com. Through our partnership with teencounseling.com, you can also get an exclusive discount on your first month if you use the code talkingtoteens. Well, I’ve been traveling for the past three months, and I’m finally coming back to the States, really excited to get back to all of my favorite Wild Foods products. If you haven’t checked out wildfoods.co, these guys are the nutrition company that I’ve been talking about on the podcast for a while now. Their products are awesome, and I love the mission that this company is on. Wild Foods specializes in real foods from small producers around the world, and they get really passionate about ingredients and the story behind the ingredients. They believe that food is the most important aspect of health and longevity, and they’ve even given our listeners a 12% discount as part of our partnership, and you can get that with the code talkingwild at wildfoods.co.

Andy: Okay, so this kind of example that you were just talking about, where you have a relationship between two kids, and you’re using the brain body types to kind of inform that is what I thought was a really cool section of the book where you go through every combination and talk about some tips. And then there was another one that I thought was really nice where you have the parent child relationship, and you go through all of the different ones of how your brain, body type as a parent is going to influence your parenting style, and then you actually go through every combination of if you’re this and you have this kind of a kid, what could you do? So I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about, I guess we don’t have to go to every combination, but just how do they affect your parenting, and then how can you kind of [crosstalk 00:12:27]?

Robert: Well, I wish I knew this stuff when I first was a parent. I mean I was clueless when I was first a parent, so I didn’t know what was going on. I mean I had kids that were different. I had one child that would finish a meal almost before anybody started, and he had this fire in him, Pitta side, but he also had a very sweet Kapha side, so it’s this kind of combination. He was very good natured, very kind of friendly, easy going, really easy. And then I had another boy, these are two boys, and the other boy was also this same combination, but he expressed it in a different way. He would take his time to eat. I mean we’d all be finished before he started, and he’s very meticulous about everything, very careful, great athlete. Both of them were intense volleyball players. They play beach volleyball, but two different styles. And they were kind of complimenting each other. They both had this fire and earth element in them.

Robert: And then I had two daughters that are also unusual combinations, more artistic, more sensitive. And again, you had to be aware of what was going on with them. One of them was very, very sensitive, had digestive problems as a kid, and if you push too hard, just total would rebel, react. So you had to give her a lot of space, and you had to recognize that she was sensitive, needed more sleep. She needed structure. She’s more of the wind. And she had fire in her too, but she needed structure, but didn’t like it. So you do everything you can to create a routine for them, and try to ground them a little bit, but they have this tendency to want to go off and keep doing something different every time. And then the other daughter was much more Kapha. She slept through the night so easy, but she also had a Vata side, and a Pitta side too. And you could see where she had her delicacy of things going out of balance. She could withdraw, and maybe get a little stubborn.

Robert: So everybody is different, but once you kind of recognize it, and you know what to do, it helps now at that time I knew nothing. So my wife and I were just … It’s chaos. You kind of figure it out, but when a kid loses their temper, what do you do? Teenage years, I’d say, are the most serious because suddenly, at that point, everything is huge. It’s not just take care of this or take care of that, everybody can get into trouble. Fortunately all my kids got through their years very well, but I wish I had known. I could have helped better by knowing. I was just learning about that time, so it did help me a bit. It was just getting this knowledge, and so I could give them more space, because I’m very Pitta myself, very goal oriented. I like to get things done. And I had to be really careful how I impose that on my kids because if I did too much, it just backfired. So to this day I think it has its biggest application in relationships.

Robert: I mean, you’re right, parent child. If you’re a Pitta parent, you have a Vata child, you cannot impose. You can be controlling, you can set all these goals, and they’re kind of looking the other way wondering what you’re talking about. They’re drawing, or they’re loving nature, and you’re all off and, “Well, what are you going to … when are you going to get your essay done?”

Andy: What’s your deadline? What’s your schedule? Let’s go.

Robert: Yeah, exactly. They don’t want to schedule. And the Kapha kids are different. If you’re a Pitta parent with them, they’re like, “Wait a minute. I love my schedule, but don’t get me up too quick. I like to sleep in the morning. I like to take a long time eating,” and you say, “No, we’ve got to get to school.” “I’m not quite finished yet. I want to taste this.” But once you see who they are, it’s like oh my God, I just had to give them more space, more time. I had to be not imposing my will on them. And it’s very cool once you get it, because if you’re out of balance yourself, all bets are off. I mean then it’s no hope. If you’re a Pitta person out of balance, you’re going to be angry, you’re going to lose your temper. It’s a disaster. If you’re a Vata parent out of balance, you’re going to have no schedule, your kids are going to wonder where the next meal comes from. And if you’re a Kapha parent out of balance, you’re just going to pull back, and just withdraw and get depressed.

Robert: So you have to take care of yourself as a parent. You have to be good about what you eat. If you meditate, you got to meditate. I’m into transcendental meditation, that was the thing I got involved in, and it helped. I mean I could be upset or angry as a Pitta person, but I meditated and then what am I doing? I’m not going to control them anyway, so what’s the point? Let’s just enjoy. So it’s all about staying in balance and avoiding certain triggers that can trip you up as a parent. It’s also about helping the kid not get out of balance. So making sure they eat on time, for a Pitta, making sure a Vata doesn’t get too cold. In the wind and cold, they’re very easy to get out of balance. A Kapha, you got to get them out the door, off the couch. You’ve got to get them moving.

Robert: So each one has their particularities, and you have to kind of be aware that they’re often combination, so when one goes out of balance, you got to kind of check and see what it is that’s out of balance, and then try to help it get back in balance. But simple things like having good sleep habits, meditating, having good eating habits. I mean that’s the kind of foundation of all these systems of natural medicine. They don’t want to take drugs. They wouldn’t like all the drugs kids are taking that are prescribed to them. They’d think it was nuts. A lot of these are Vata problems. They’d have all kinds of really ridiculously simple solutions, like a Vata kid that has what you might call these days, ADHD, or their attention is wandering all over, I mean simple, like meditating, kids, they get a huge benefit from it. Autistic kids get a huge benefit.

Robert: And also they have the little simple things like sipping hot water. I mean when would you ever tell somebody to sip hot water, but it has this amazing use in Chinese medicine, it grounds these body types that get out of balance, their attention is going all over the place. It’s like discovering a whole new archeological dig. I mean there were all these things that people knew thousands of years ago, and why shouldn’t we be using them? Why are we giving kids drugs? Or why are we treating them as if they’re abnormal?

Robert: Just now coaching is becoming a big deal. And coaching is an interesting thing. We always think of coaching, your sports coach rallying you on, and forcing you to go to run around the field and everything, but there’s a lot of coaching going on now that’s different, which is more about asking you questions, finding out what you want, and empowering you to do it. And I would think for teenagers, that would be huge. I mean really sitting down and listening to what is bothering them, and not trying to impose something, or give them drugs, or force them to do something they don’t want to do, but kind of listening what they want to do, and helping them take responsibility for their own lives, empowering them. And then you have to know, is the coach a Pitta person? It’s just like a parent. Is the coach a Vata person? If so, is the client a Pitta person? So okay, two Pittas, no problem. I mean God, every habit change book you’ve ever read is written by Pitta people. They have no comprehension why Vata and Kapha people can’t follow their simple instructions.

Robert: But they’re they’re so goal oriented. And so I think coaching would be a great thing because it’s all about getting trust, and getting to really know a person, and really being interested in the other person views. And now, we’re doing another book right now, my son and I and wife, on this is what we call total brain coaching, which is using kind of this knowledge of the mind, body types to coach people, and then using some very good knowledge of habit change, and how the neuroplasticity and gut brain, using that knowledge to help people change habits, because it’s hard for some people to change habits, even though they know they can be destructive.

Andy: We are here with Dr. Robert Keith Wallace, talking about how you can understand your teenager’s brain, body type, and we’re not done yet. Here’s a look at what’s coming up in the second half of the show.

Robert: But a new experience is fantastic for the brain. The brain loves new experiences, and it’s a joy to create new neural circuits in the brain. Attention has a big effect. Every experience you have in the world changes the wiring of your brain. So you’re getting negative attention. You’re getting stress. It’s wiring your brain wrong. It’s really about an education, helping them understand who they are, because the best thing that can happen is your teenager comes home, as a parent, says, “Boy Dad, I really screwed up today. I skipped my lunch and man, I blew up,” and it’s like wow, I didn’t have to tell them anything. They figured it out themselves. Okay, maybe they had a reason for skipping lunch, but they knew it. That’s so cool. Or, “I really blew it last night. I spent all night playing this game, and I loved it, but oh God, I died today in school.”

Robert: Now, if your kid can tell you that as a parent, you’re suddenly now like a coach. “Oh well, what could you have done different?” You’re not telling them, “You’re bad. You shouldn’t have done that. I’m grounding you for days,” you’re asking them, “Well, what do you think might help you break that habit of getting on the game late at night?” “Yeah. I probably should turn off my computer, and maybe I should take a hot bath, or listen to some music, or do this or that.” So suddenly you’re strategizing with them, but you’re not telling them, you’re just being a good coach, and kind of asking them questions, and empowering them to figure it out themselves, what they can do.

About Robert Keith Wallace

Dr. R. Keith Wallace received his Doctorate in physiology from UCLA and followed it up with a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University. His research on physiology and its connection to consciousness has been published in prestigious academic journals as well as Science, American Journal of Physiology, and Scientific American.

Additionally, Dr. Wallace is a speaker, and has toured all over the globe to deliver lectures on his work. He is the founding President of the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, and currently serves as a Trustee, Co-Dean, and Professor and Department Chairman at Maharishi.

Dr. Wallace and his wife raised 4 kids of their own, which has made Dr. Wallace keenly aware of the mischief kids and teens get into!

Want More Robert Keith Wallace?

You can find Keith on his website, Facebook, and LinkedIn.