Scientific Parenting: They Are Losing Their Minds.

512px-Lobes_of_the_brain_NL.svgDefiant, tearful, melancholy, spiteful, indolent, idle, unconcerned, flippant, seemingly ill-bred and ill-mannered. Who raises that kind of child?

Well, I suppose I do. I didn’t mean to. I tried to avoid it. (Didn’t I?) I was kind. (Wasn’t I?) I defined boundaries. (Right?) I didn’t yell too much. (Did I?)

There is no doubt, when my tweens started crying, rolling their eyes, slamming doors, saying things I’d never heard them say before, and expressing dark thoughts, I momentarily lost it. I lost my parenting skills which I normally feel good about. I lost my self-confidence. I lost my cool. Who are these kids and who wants them for the next ten years?!

Today I was going to write about my favorite tips (so far) for raising tweens and teens, but science luckily intervened. While teeing up the tip post, I learned about some of the changes happening in the adolescent brain, reinforcing to me that I had to stop taking my tweens’ behaviors personally. I mean, I don’t take my toddler’s screaming and food throwing personally!

Toddler’s brains are undergoing major changes–growth, brain pruning, changes in connections. This calms down a bit in childhood only to pick back up again right before puberty (sigh), continuing through adolescence, which depending on the person can be defined as 10-25 years old (yes, that long).

So, my two oldest kids’ brains are physically and functionally whacking them out right now. What they need is not a beating, not a religious straight jacket, and not a pushover parent. They need encouragement, support, and reliability–and a parent with coping skills to give them just that.

Neuromaturation (Grow up, brain. Grow up.)

Adolescents (loosely defined as the ages 10-25) are NOT functioning on the brain I’m functioning on. From beards to body odors to brains, they are CHANGING. I’m going to reduce these brain changes to extreme oversimplification using some humor. Don’t try to talk to a neuroscientist using this information. And may my daughters and science please forgive me for manipulation of scientific facts. It’s for the promotion of survival of my progeny.

They are losing their minds. Yes. Literally. Brain gray matter grows just before puberty, and THEN about 1% per year is lost during the rest of adolescence! The body is pruning the brain’s neurons to make it a sleeker, more reliable, better functioning machine. (1, 2) So when you think they have forgotten everything you taught them—who knows?! Maybe they did lose that neuron and its connection. Or when you’re daughter makes an eye roll, maybe it’s a little twitch from another neuron being lost. Ha!

They’re animals. Well, kind of. It is commonly (although rather mistakenly) said that our limbic systems are part of our primitive, animal-like brain and our frontal cortex is “what makes us human.” Raw, gut-reaction emotions are generated in our limbic systems and then sent to the frontal cortex for tailoring of thoughts and responses with logic, rationalization, and planning. Well, research shows that adolescents have exceptionally active amygdalas, parts of the limbic system, and they have less connections from the amygdala to the frontal cortex when compared to adults. So I jokingly say that teens and tweens are functioning on their primitive, animal brain because their actions are guided more by their amygdalas (their emotions) than their frontal cortexes (logic and reasoning). (1, 3) They’re our dear, wild, little animal pets:

“Dogs and cats have different brains than humans. We should not think of them as furry people complete with human drives and emotions. Instead, we should look at them as having more child-like emotions and embrace their innocence. Only through compassion and understanding can we truly have a mutually beneficial relationship with our pets.” (4)

They need Prozac and 5-Hour ENERGY Shots. Their neurotransmitters and the receptors that are acted on by these neurotransmitters are in flux, including dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and melatonin.  We all know friends and family members who take anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep-aids due to “chemical imbalances” in the brain. Well, adolescents have changes in these same chemicals as a normal part of their life. So should we be surprised by their moodiness and sometimes erratic behavior?  Dopamine changes make them more prone to risk taking. Serotonin changes make them more susceptible to mood swings. Less development of the inhibitory GABA system makes them prone to excitement. High melatonin levels actually induce them to sleep more; they’re not just lazy. I mean, they are. But they’re not. Please don’t buy them 5 Hour Energy drinks. (5, 6)

When I say they need Prozac, I’m not in earnest, but knowing that their neurotransmitters are indeed not as stable as they will become (hopefully) in adulthood helps us to be more accepting of adolescent emotional lability. HOWEVER, the fact of the matter is, suicide is the third leading cause of death in kids between the ages of 10 and 24, so we MUST be vigilantly aware of this risk and NEVER underestimate adolescents’ susceptibility to mental disorders such as depression. (7)

They literally see you mad all the time. You’re not mad all the time, you say? Adolescents don’t see it that way. A study shows that they see facial cues differently and are apt to misread facial expressions as anger, even if they’re not!  Surprise=anger. Fear=anger. Shock=anger. Sadness=anger. Perplexed=anger. One reason our teens are volatile and angry is because they think they see anger on faces all around them, including yours. Couple the hurt of one, thinking that people are angry with them all the time to two, weak connections to the frontal lobe so they can’t rationally modify their responses (and throw in some significant neurotransmitter flux)–and you’ve got a disturbance in the force. A real force to be reckoned with. (2)

Remember the time your daughter huffed and burst into tears when she asked you if you liked her outfit?  You barely even had time to turn around and look and she had decided you couldn’t stand it! Or the time your son asked for $20 to head out with his friends and you were trying to remember if you even had a twenty in your wallet–and he blew up in your face because you’re always judging him? What? 

Sorry. You looked angry. Even if you weren’t angry, perception is everything in a relationship.

No excuses

Adolescents between the ages of 10 and 25 are not neuromaturated. In some physically defined, scientifically objective ways, their brains simply are out of control. No excuses here. Simply an underscore of the importance for parents to keep it together and be in control of their own emotions and responses. To find ways to be an effective parent. To not take it personally.

Thanks for learning right along with me. Next post, I hope to look at some ways to keep my head about me so I don’t lose my tweens over the next 23 years. With my oldest at 12 years old and my youngest at 1 and ½ years old, I’ve got years ahead of me.

And please, get help for you and your kids if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Don’t try to go it alone.




3. Should the science of adolescent brain development inform public policy? Steinberg, Laurence. American Psychologist, Vol 64(8), Nov 2009, 739-750.

5. Maturation of the adolescent brain. Arain, Haque, et al. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2013; 9: 449–461. Published online 2013 Apr 3. doi:  10.2147/NDT.S39776PMCID: PMC3621648

21 thoughts on “Scientific Parenting: They Are Losing Their Minds.

  1. Tanya

    On the days that I don’t want to pull out all my hair (or drive a spike into my head), I’m liking this tween age. I won’t mention the ratio of spike-contemplation to not-spike-contemplation days at the moment, it’s too depressing. I see flashes of more mature reasoning from my daughter that are so cool. And again, when I’m not considering whether a couple bottles of wine would help my outlook, I see that this is almost like an emotional/relationship do-over of the tumultuous toddler years. Some of the deeply self-centered behaviors of my daughter (along with the cutting remarks that a 2-year old isn’t capable of) have been an unhappy surprise, and yet frankly, I’m dealing with it better than I did when she was 2. I’m more mature, myself, and our life circumstances are easier and less stressful than they were a decade ago (and I don’t want to discount that because it’s making this a lot easier than it otherwise could be).

    It’s a really interesting time (can you tell today is a good day?). And I know that on the tougher days, I’m going to come back to this blog post and remind myself that it’ll all be okay.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Wow. Thanks for sharing that. I relate to much! 🙂 I’m loving your spike in the head imagery! Your wine outlook. (My motto: Endeavor to live each moment of life like you’ve had a glass of wine–even if you haven’t/can’t.) The “Do over of the toddler years.” (Yes. Totally seeing that as I have a toddler side-by-side to compare to…) But, yeah, those darker thoughts really undermine me. (When you wrote “cutting”–did you mean harsh words or literally cutting on oneself? Obviously big difference in what I ought to reply! 🙂 Cutting harsh remarks–welcome to The Tween/Teen Club, right!? “I want to cut myself” remarks–professional advice recommended. 🙂 ) Reading about the actual changes in the brain reminded me that so many of these moods/changes/behaviors are physiologic (but NO less dangerous in some kids). Their actions I must call to order, but I can’t change their moods. I can help provide good tools (to me and them), positive affirmations, God’s promises (we’re Christ-centered), good books, and make myself reliable for them—but I can’t change them. Let’s hang in there together! I’m glad it’s a good day. And I’m glad this decade is easier than those of past. I love my mom to pieces, and she has been an anchor for me so many times. May our kids have that too. Whew. I need to talk less. Must have been that dinner Merlot.

  2. Tim Steele

    Wow, this kind of fits in with the post I just did about probiotics, exercise and neurogenesis. Public school lunches are hideously deficient in nutrition and filled with refined, low-fiber carbs. If our bacteria also influence brain growth, that makes it all the more disastrous.

    No wonder kids eat paste and chalk.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      I thought our posts today were kind of similar, on dementia/amygdalas/pica! Those gut bacteria are huge for development. For example, one potential disrupted gut path could be: 1) Estrogen acts on the brain to bring about certain cells’sensitivity to serotonin 2) Gut bacteria affect the recycling of estrogen 3) Altered estrogenic metabolism affects the necessary role of appropriate estrogen levels on brain.

      I’m sure there are myriad other potential pathways that rely on gut bacteria to modulate them which could potentially affect the brain’s development that we could come up with.

      Definitely the idea that some people are now being diagnosed with pica cravings of starch really do make you think about putting all this stuff together. I found that very fascinating and curious in your post.

      Wish kids and parents would really grasp on to this and it would take off for our kids. Much easier to start young.

      Take good care!

  3. Simple Days Making for Exciting Adventures

    I chuckled out loud as i read this one-especially the angry one. My oldest thinks that we are ALWAYS angry with him and no one else in the family. We are RARELY angry at anyone. LOL! But you are so right!! He thinks that everyone is angry with him. My hubby and I remind ourselves daily of this teenage thing. I don’t remember much of my own teenage years-maybe my body got rid of a lot of bad neurons during those years!!
    Breathe, live in the moment and breath again. One step at a time. I think that is the only way to get through these next-how many years?

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      I know! Was crazy that research was able to illustrate that so well (that they see anger)! You can see one of the faces they used in a study in one of the PBS links I listed. She definitely looks afraid or severely shocked, but teens didn’t reliably read the face that way!

      I was working on this post during your butterfly post, and I couldn’t help but think about how they undergo metamorphosis just like butterflies (hopefully…).

      Yep. Breathe! If 25 years old is the cutoff, I have about 23 more years. Hope your weather is glorious and school is winding down a little bit.

      1. Simple Days Making for Exciting Adventures

        Yes. I remember reading the angry face article. I had forgotten about it though. I love comparing our changes to butterflies. Such a positive spin.
        Weather is amazing and we are just trying to get through everyone’s math! We took our time w math so we are still getting through! I hope you are well too! Your ears were probably burning this afternoon. You were the topic of conversation during my walk today. I have s friend working through h.pilori and gut issues. 😳

      2. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

        We are slowing down. Summer activities start hot and heavy in one week. I’m looking forward to that!

        I hope your friend gets a good plan in place and starts feeling better. It’s no fun to sort through it all! Very confusing. Have her leave a question on any page if she’d like! You know I’ll do my best!


  4. Christine

    What I’d be interested to hear is what your tween thinks of all this information about the adolescent brain. Will she use it to her advantage? (“I can’t HELP it MOM!!”) I know I sure would have when I was a teenager!

    Again, I had boys so some things differ, but I know the one thing that they needed, and was the hardest for me to get used to, was their time alone to ruminate. Whatever #1 son might have been brooding about when he had the Guns N’ Roses blasting from the basement was none. of. my. damn. business. And teens being what they are, whatever those mysterious thoughts might have been, they were completely different the next day. You just can’t hold them to anything they say they feel half the time. The wind changes direction and their moods change. Oy.

    Not trying to scare you or nothin’.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      NOTHING I do in this house here is private. I wonder if boys are like that? Ha! So I have the approval of the tweens in question. For me, learning about the stuff in this post here is allowing me to do what you mention in your second paragraph with your son (leave them alone when they brood, accepting that they blow up easily and recover as if it didn’t happen, giving them space). I wasn’t so good at that two months ago.

      I’m an ombudsman, have been all my life–let’s all get along together, compromise, and sing Kumbaya–so disharmony in my house over petty things was eating at me badly. Learning the science helped me see that ombudsman style wasn’t going to be able to apply effectively here, and I had to go back to parenting like I did with my toddler (with whom I never felt a need to reason with). Here are the rules. There aren’t too many but they need followed and will be enforced. Most are to keep you safe. Go deal with yourself when you don’t like it. I’ll check in at some point with you to let you know how much I care.

      Anyhow, I grew up on Guns N’ Roses. Axl Rose, the lead singer, was from Indiana, my beloved home state. I’m literally chuckling out loud thinking about any of my kids sulking in their room blaring “Oh, oh, oh,oh, sweet child o’ mi-ine.”

      I was very scared, a few things happened which prompted that. Now, however, I’m learning and getting tools and I feel ready, like we can do this. Your button line will feature greatly in my post and always in my thoughts. My daughter read the draft for the next post, and she said, “I know all your buttons. Sometimes, I push them on accident. Sometimes I push them on purpose.” I also see I know her buttons, and sometimes, I can’t help but push them either! Wish she’d remove her buttons too.

      Thanks for commenting and sharing. I really appreciate it. One never knows how things will end up, but I always go down trying. 🙂

  5. andthreetogo

    Wow! What a difference this would have made to me if I had known it as an adolescent, and how wonderful that I know it for when Z gets to that point. It will be so much easier to understand and be compassionate knowing what is going on in her. I also am amazed that this information is not more readily available for parents. Thank you so much for doing the research and sharing. I am going to share this on facebook, 1- so that I remember it for the years to come, and 2-so that other parents out there I know can understand their hormonal offspring more! Seriously, awesome article Terri. Just awesome!

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Thanks, Jenny. It helped me tremendously. I thought just like you did (ahem–imagine that), “Why isn’t anyone talking about this stuff? Maybe they should give out fliers when you renew your driver’s license, LOL!” I think knowing this would help parents to maybe not ostracize themselves from their kids.

      I kind of look at my kids now and picture that inside their brains it’s just goo that’s reorganizing itself. Ha! Not the case, but the butterfly idea attracts me. You know, when butterflies are in that cocoon (chrysalis), they’re all liquified and then they turn into a gorgeous butterfly!?

      And lastly, I JUST found an article which explains that gut bacteria helps with the myelin sheath formation on the nerves in our brain. Myelin sheath production is really amped up to help the limbic, raw emotional brain center connect to the frontal (planning, logic, rational) part of the brain in adolescents. So WHAT kids eat DOES matter! So much! Shew. At least I got started on that four years ago! The article even points out that adolescents are undergoing lots of myelin formation. So fascinating!

      Have a great upcoming week! I hope it’s peaceful, sunny, and enjoyable!

  6. Shelly

    Thankfully there is light at the end of the tunnel. They do adjust and things do get better. Lexi is in this horrid limbo stage and I anxiously await it’s passing. I do remember Belle being there. It has only been in the last year that she has become human again. I had an elementary principle give me the best description of kids in this age range. He called them the heaven and hell kids. He said that they aren’t quiet big Kids but they are no longer little kids. They have so many hormones and emotions running through them that they don’t know if they are coming or going most of the time. I have the greatest respect for people who have the patience to work with this age range day in and day out. I couldn’t do it. One at a time at home is more than enough for me.

    1. thehomeschoolingdoctor Post author

      Ah, Shelly! I saw your Facebook “like,” and I’m so happy you commented. Because I was wondering, “Shelly has done this already! I wonder what she thinks about all this!” [Can you believe it!? Feels like just yesterday we were playing house.] They are so tempestuous! So quickly-changing! Up and down! So hard-driven to prove themselves. I really feel like this should have been a topic in home ec or something! LOL! Warmest wishes to you. You’re doing a great job!


  7. Pingback: When Homeschooling Goes Bad | The HSD

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