The Adolescent Brain and Stress

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Isn’t it interesting how people respond to stress in very different ways? Consider, for instance, how different personalities respond to stress. Both my wife and I are educators and spend most of our day interacting with others. Both my wife and I experience stress in a variety of ways throughout the day. And both my wife and I come home needing to recharge our batteries and gain back some of the mental energy we’ve lost throughout the day. But, unlike my wife, I need to regain my mental energy with a little peace and quiet. I don’t particularly want to engage in conversation or chat through my day–I want to just think. My wife, on the other hand, likes to recharge her batteries by way of conversation and lots of questions. As you can imagine, that can create an interesting dynamic at times (and periodically some frustration between us).

Similarly, we parents often experience “interesting dynamics” and “periodic frustration” with our adolescents. These interactions often leave us wondering why they are being so moody, getting upset, speaking rudely, or becoming withdrawn. Historically, we’ve concluded that their hormones are to blame and things will improve when they are more “chemically balanced” at the end of adolescence. And while there is some truth to that (Jensen, 2016), it is not the complete story.

It turns out “that teenagers don’t have higher hormone levels than young adults” (p. 21). However, they are still learning how to respond to hormones. In the last decade, research has begun to suggest that what makes it so difficult to manage their responses is stress. We know that teenagers have always experienced some degree of stress in their lives, but let’s face it: the stress they experience now is rather unprecedented. Home, school, peers, and parents have always been common sources of stress, but the exponential increase in media, internet, and technology is a new source of stress that bombards our teenagers (with consequences that we still know little about). But I slightly digress. …more on technology in another post.

The problem with stress is that our body’s natural coping mechanism which helps to reduce anxiety, may not have the same effect on the teenage brain as it does on adults. “In an adult, [THP] acts like a tranquilizer in the brain and produces a calming effect about a half hour after the anxiety-producing event.” But in adolescents, it appears that THP may be “ineffective in inhibiting anxiety. So anxiety begets anxiety even more so in teens” (p. 22).

Well that’s good news… Okay, not really. But it might not be bad news either. As a parent (and as a principal), I think my take-away is to not only be more patient with adolescent “craziness,” but also to more carefully monitor stress levels–paying particular attention to how many stress-inducing, anxiety-producing activities my son is engaged in. If my brain is able to deal with anxiety more effectively than his, then perhaps it is incumbent upon me to both teach him how to manage stress/anxiety and to periodically help shoulder some of that burden on his behalf. It won’t always be easy, but at least it gives me a small degree of influence (dare I say: control) in the midst of the craziness. It’s better than just chalking it up to “hormones.”

Cheers!

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Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A. E. (2016). The teenage brain: a neuroscientists survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: London.