Understanding the Teenage Brain
More than 30 years into her career as a psychologist and researcher, with multiple books in her repertoire spanning family, relationships and adolescence, Dr. Terri Apter admits to being surprised by the latest scientific findings when it comes to teenage brain development.
Dr. Apter, former Senior Tutor at Newnham College in Cambridge, U.K., shared the revelations that caught her eye in the course of writing her latest book — during an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk.
“I think the first thing would be on the teens social brain, and how that is really very different from either a child or an adult,” she says. “They process social interactions in a very different way.”
Her book entitled, The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Raising Adolescents distills the science to offer strategies and approaches for parents to consider when navigating the sometimes-turbulent teenage years — often rife with unpredictable, risk-taking and rebellious behaviour.
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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a psychologist, writer and an author of multiple titles on topics including family relationships and adolescents. Dr. Terry Apter is also a mother of two and a grandmother of four. Her latest book is called The teen interpreter, A Guide to the challenges and joys of raising adolescents. Dr. Apter joins us today from her home in Cambridge in the UK. Great to have you along. And thank you for being here.
Well, it’s my pleasure to be with you. Thanks for having me,
Doctor Apter so much to talk to you about but I want to get into what made you want to write the Teen Interpreter?
Well, I’m very concerned when I see teens and parents believe that they’re hopelessly at odds that their relationship is doomed, that adolescence is a time when they’re trying to separate and that it’s, you know, it’s bound to be a difficult time, I thought I want to reintroduce parents to their teens, so that they see that their teens still love them, that they remain dependent on that love, they still want their parents approval, they want their parents to see them and get to know them a new. And that urge is often shrouded by myths that teens are bound to rebel against their parents. Anna Freud called adolescence, the psychological version of parent teen divorce, she really thought that, you know, and you still hear that parents saying, I know they want to separate from me, they want to be calm their individual person they want to be, you know, they’re, they want to develop their own identity, different from their parents, but they also want that relationship to remain whole and a lot of the action, but parents and adolescents is actually made worse by parents inability to see what it is that teens really want from them. And so I you know, I want the parent to become the interpreter of the teen, the ability to read the teen. So that’s the aim of the book.
Anyone listening to that description who has a teenager is going to be like, Finally, oh, my goodness, all the things that you just described are things that I’ve given them experiencing? And and how do I, as a parent, with everything else going on in the world today? interpret what it is that my teenage boy or girl is telling me? And how much is too much? And how much is not enough?
Okay, well, I think when you first have your child, parents are normally you know, immensely curious about who this being is who this son, daughter, whatever it is, they really want to get to know their child. And so they’re watching out for little signs. And you can see the rhythm, it’s, you know, it’s been described as a kind of dance, or choreography between parent and infant, as the parent is mirroring what the infant is doing. And the infant is just looking adoringly at the parent, that kind of thing seems to come very naturally to us. What is much less natural is that warm, open curiosity towards a teen, but the teens still needs it, you know, not in the same way, not to the same extent, not on the minute by minute detail as the child did as an infant, but still needs it. And so, learning again to retain that warm, curious step from what often seems like an attack and a rejection. You know, you hear parents say, I can never say the right thing. Every time I open my mouth, she complains. I can’t do anything for her. You know, they want to you should step away from that. And take a new look at what messages the team is giving you and read those new because often the team is saying, you know you don’t. You’re not keeping up to date with me. You think I’m the little child who wants new I’m really very different. But you’re not taking this in and you’re acting on old assumptions and I want you to see me knew. So often the team will try to sort of rattle off a parent, you know, shake her out of those old assumptions about, you know who I am. And, you know, so I’m in the book, trying to give her the kind of toolbox and a context for interpreting the teens irritability, the DT, those identity reminders, the emotional upheaval that sometimes is just put down to teen hormones, but is much more complex and interesting than that.
It’s so interesting, because I think most of us realize to some basic extent that there’s a lot going on in the adolescent development, developmental phase of life. If we’re going to look at the brain science for a second. What can you tell us in sort of layman’s terms that would be helpful to parents in terms of a foundational, foundational pieces that they need to know about that may influence their approach to how they parent a teenager?
Okay, well, that’s a good question, because when the brain science first became widely known, and this was in the late 1990s, because it wasn’t until then, that there was sufficient brain imaging techniques to look at how living brains were functioning. But when that started, one of the first things that was noticed was that the prefrontal cortex, which you can sort of think of the executive or control center of the brain, that was that was very inefficient in the adolescent years. So of course, teens are impulsive. You know, they’re not good at stepping back from an immediate reward, they’re not good at measuring risk. And they’re, you know, all too willing to take risks that we know, are really unacceptable. And certainly a parent for this beloved team feels is unacceptable. So initially, the brain science was confirming a lot of the negative stereotypes of teens it was saying, So you heard things like, yes, your teen is crazy. And don’t blame me blame my brain. Because it was as though it was saying, well, teens are just disorganized, risk takers. And there’s nothing you can do, yes, they’re crazy. Don’t blame them blame their brain. But more and more, as we’re getting to understand how the brain is growing and developing, we can see that parents can take a very positive role in actually helping shape and grow their teens brain. So sometimes we talk about three systems in the teenage psyche. So there’s a reward system. And you know, teens are very keen on novelty, on excitement, and you know, that really, those are their big rewards. But they’re also regulation system, and that sort of regulates emotions, allows them to manage all those very strong, difficult emotions they’re experiencing, and also allows them to regulate their craving for rewards. And there is also a relationship system, you know, what to relationships do, how do they fit into that? Now, if parents understand that this important relationship system which they, you know, they play a key part in that, that if they help a teen, reflect on their emotions, reflect on what they’re doing, and feel that they’re being acknowledged and that they’re being understood, or at least the apparent wants to understand them. This really helps grow their regulation system, and that helps control their reward system. So you know, we’ve all heard the phrase, you know, you name something to tame it. And that is very, very true with teen emotions and impulses. Me and teens are very keen to understand their own emotions, they’re becoming more and more aware of how complex emotions are. So, you know, a teen is able to use emotional words in a much more granular detailed way than a child. You know, a child can use the word mad or tired or angry, you know, interchangeably or sad interchangeably. Teens are trying to sort of sift this out, but they realize they can be angry, but they can also be embarrassed or ashamed and they can be hurt.
And if parents sort of help them with that, not by being ultra sophisticated, and poets themselves and dealing with a complex emotional language, but just willing to listen to them, and let their teens talk and, you know, stay with them, even when things are difficult, that is really important in helping the team build that regulation system. So the more primitive bits of the brain, you know, impulses, panic, and excitement, don’t overwhelm them.
It sounds so reasonable as you describe it, but in the moment of whatever is going on, where, you know, it could be again, reckless behavior, or something that is, you know, considered risk taking. What could you suggest to parents in that moment, because we’re talking about a lot of things, we’re talking about the parent regulating how they’re going to react? Yeah, at the same time, as watching whatever’s going to unfold or whatever conversation they’re going to have. So could you give us some sort of practical tips around that?
Well, for the first thing is that parents shouldn’t expect too much of themselves. I mean, they will lose it. Sometimes teens can be infuriating, and also can arouse a lot of anxiety, you know, and fear, you know, what’s happening to my teen? What influences are there? Am I losing control? You know, am I losing, you know, is my teen exposing have to undo undue risk. So, you know, I think parents will lose it. And they will not be modeling, therefore, the best form of self regulation. But, you know, Donald Winnicott talked about the good enough parent, and what he meant was not simply that you only have to be good enough, you know, you don’t have to be perfect, he was actually saying, it’s important to be imperfect you, your children need to see that you can break down that, you know, relationships can always seem to rupture, or it can be badly bruised, but yet you come together again, and that rupture and repair, whether it’s in regulation or within the relationship sets a very important model for what’s possible. And it’s very reassuring, because when you don’t want someone who sees sees something bad happening within a relationship or within their own self control, then they will, you know, that they’ll think, you know, I’m facing Doom, then that will, you know, that will, you want to get over that you want to be able to think this relationship can be stretched, you know, it can be bruised, but we can come together again, I can lose it. But I can also regain control and regain, you know, my self respect. And so, you know, in the moment things can go wrong. And when I say modeling good behavior and modeling, warm curiosity, if the if that is the case about 30% of the time, that’s plenty. But, so what can they do says that they can ask Dan by their teens, even when their teen is very upset. So instead of trying to fix about, you know, a negative emotion, show that you’re listening show that you know, you want to hear it. Take your time, give your team a little bit of space to talk. Don’t dismiss the emotion. Don’t say, Oh, don’t be morbid, you know, don’t punish them for their feelings. Yeah, and dismissing it would be, you know, oh, that’s nonsense. And also don’t try to distract. Yes, you want to distract them with some kind of comfort, but you don’t want to distract them in the sense of don’t think about it at all. And if they don’t want to talk about it, well, give them time don’t insist they talk about it now, but you’re always looking for, you know, that window of opportunity to start a conversation. And off, you know, especially parents of boy teens, they my team doesn’t want to talk to me, you know, there’s no point in this. I, you know, I get one word answers. I think if your teen isn’t seeming to talk to you, and you’re not getting enough information, but the rule is not to walk away and say, you know, I’ll wait till he’s 24. But to ask better questions may be more concrete, watch your body language, make sure you’re not exhibiting anxiety or self be sensitive to whether they want to be touched or whether they don’t, some teams are very, you know, so tense, in certain circumstances that even at touch will overexcite them overstimulate them. But sometimes when a teen is, you know, all over the place, touching, just, you know, touching a hand touching a shoulder can be very reassuring, it sort of reminds them that they have physical boundaries.
Such simple tips and strategies, but seemingly, you know, incredibly powerful in the moment, as you’re describing them, I want to dig a little bit further into the whole concept of relationships, and, of course, how important they are all the time, but certainly in that adolescent time of life, the child parent versus the child peer relationship, many researchers have found that there’s a fundamental shift in that dynamic. These days, it would appear that more and more, you know, teens value their friendships more when they’re in that phase, and they would value their parents. Where do you stand on that?
Well, friends do become very important in adolescence, actually, they’re important throughout throughout our lives. But in adolescence, it revs up it becomes much more bound up with our sense of who we are. And teens like to talk to one another let me say that both boys teens and girl teens, it’s often said that just girl teens in gauge in very deep personal conversations with friends voice due to though in late adolescence, it becomes a little more complicated because Guy Code then, and they are no longer so a few so warm, so open about their need for one another in their late teens. But anyway, friendships do become very important. And some parents say, you know, it’s this on my team has joined a tribe, there are all these signals. And they share the same hairstyle, grooming clothes, the way they talk, the music they listen to. Yes, indeed, but who influences us is, you know, very complex friends in a way influence you more in the moment, and how you dress how you appear. But parents influences really long term and it does, you know, research shows that it’s, you know, those family values, the ways of interacting are lifelong, and, you know, much greater influences than your teenage friends. So I think it’s important to remember that attachment and influence shouldn’t be thought of as a pie with a certain set sections of you know, how much can be doled out, it’s much more elastic than that. And parents are still incredibly important. And also parents can influence teens friendships in some ways. It has been noticed that parents who try to get to know their teens friends, even in a low key just sort of hospitality kind of way, are much less likely to be, you know, to be seen as a really bad influence on the teen. So it isn’t easy, because you know, the teen friend who comes into the home, will not want to sit down and have a long chat with a parent. But even just a hello, and acknowledgement, you know, I see you here. I know you’re here. And, you know, I’m welcoming you. But there are stories, that can be very helpful.
Now in speaking about the research, Dr. Apter I’m curious, in the course of writing the teen interpreter, was there any research that you came upon that you uncovered that really struck you?
Oh, yes. So I think the first thing would be on the teens social brain, and how that is really very different from either a child or an adult. So they process social interactions in a very different way, they’re more likely to see a neutral face, you know, a face that a child or a grown up would see as neutral, a teen is more likely to see it as angry or fearful. And that goes a long way to explaining some of their heated responses to parents who are trying to be neutral. So I think that’s, that’s very important. I think, also, there’s a lot of interesting research on what’s called interoception, which is, it’s the sixth sense of, you know, what’s going on in our bodies, and how that helps us or from that we build emotions. So, you know, the beating of the heart, the digestive system, you know, our blood, our muscles, all of these things, actually play a part in how we interpret the world around us as either positive or negative, and how we feel about it. And, you know, teens with their changing bodies are and they’re changing social worlds are building emotions in new ways and understand this, as opposed to thinking of those widely varying emotions as just hormones gone amok. I think it’s very helpful. And then I think the third thing I point to is research on social media, which has to be better. I mean, you know, social media is a new phenomenon. You hear a lot about it does this it does that it has this effect on teens, it has that effect on teens, and it’s really a bit of a mess. So I think we have to do much more research on looking at the different ways teens use social media, you know, sometimes it’s very passive and they are just scrolling through and maybe being buffeted by a kind of envy. You know, even for people they don’t admire but glossy images. Why am I not like this? But sometimes it’s very positive and proactive. And of course during the lockdowns, the some aspects of social media and smartphone use for very important in sustaining teens well being because it connected them to with friends. And, I mean, another thing is you is research that shows just how devastating embarrassment is to teens. I mean, you know, embarrassment is far more excruciating them physical injury, you know, they, they fit they have a looking glass self, which doesn’t mean they look in the mirror and see themselves as their reflection in the mirror. It means they to look at other people say Who am I because they’re not yet aware of who they are. They’re trying to invent create an identity. And, you know, so in that uncertain period, they’re often look Think to other people to tell them who they are. And of course, when parents do that, and don’t get it right, then that sparks a teens irritability, and they’ll say, you know, you don’t know me, you know, you’re not saying the right thing. And parents hear that as you should go away. But what the team is saying, really, you should work a bit harder to get to know me and see what it is I’m see who I’m trying to become and help me become that person.
Such an important point. You know, one of the points that you make in your book is that children need their parents longer than society suggests. Now, this might come as a huge shock to a lot of people or it may not to others, it depends. But could you elaborate on what your thought is on that? Why do you believe children need their parents longer than what society suggests?
Okay, so we have sort of 18 is the notion of adulthood or sometimes 21. And by that time, you know, teens have grown up a lot. But they’re, but they’re not actually adults, I would say until about the age of 24. Now, there are two different ways of explaining that. The first is the environment, you know, in our society today demands a huge amount from adults, much more in terms of complexity than it did some decades ago, previous generation. Errors, eras. Expect a lot of meaning a lot of experience. In order to set up your own independent home, you can just get your first good job as you could maybe in the 50s or 60s 1950s, or 1960s. You know, expenses are just very, very different. So, you know, people will say, Oh, well, the problem is that teens, by their little by their gadgets, or young adults by their gadgets, and they need this and that, and that’s why they can’t afford a home. But if you do the maths, saving on gadgets is not going to allow them to live independently. It just, you know, it’s a big ask. So a lot of the markers of adulthood. Being on a career track and being able to start your own family and being able to live in some way independently. Those are the markers of adulthood. They’re not going to happen early. So that’s the cultural social side. But then there’s also the brain side, what we now know about the developing brain. And the developing brain is not fully streamlined and efficient, and adult in form, either in structure or in function until about the age of 24. So, you know, there’s so much about how we are infantilizing our teens, if we continue to give them a home to live help them with things. And I think that that is very unfair. And you know it. And internally with the team relationship in the, in those late adolescent years, that late adolescent years that go into what we think of as young adulthood, I think of them as threshold errs. They’re on the threshold to adulthood, but they’re not yet ready to step into it. And, you know, we have to accept that. And those late teens, early adults who have a lot of family support, in terms of they’re there for me, you know, they’ll help me talk through a problem or help me find out how to negotiate a job application. Those are the teens who make it a better transition into young adulthood.
I’d like to end by asking you Dr. Apter what do you want readers of the teen interpreter to leave with?
Okay, well, they’re not going to leave it with the idea that parenting a teen is easy, but they will leave it with is a reminder of how exciting how joyous it is to participate in this phase of your child’s life. And they will leave it with the things that they knew to matter to their team that they can always have a positive impact on their team. And I hope that they will have, you know, a toolbox for making a positive contribution, continuing positive contribution to their team’s life. That’s what I’d like.
Certainly a wonderfully optimistic note to end on Dr. Terry Apter, psychologist and author of the teen interpreter. Thank you so much for your time today.
In The Teen Interpreter, Dr. Apter, a mother and grandmother, challenges long-held societal beliefs about teens, questions how long teens really do need their parents and offers tips on how parents’ can decode clues their teens may be giving them.
Below is an excerpt from the interview with Dr. Terri Apter.
Q: What made you want to write The Teen Interpreter?
I’m very concerned when I see teens and parents believe that they’re hopelessly at odds, that their relationship is doomed, that adolescence is a time when they’re trying to separate and that it’s bound to be a difficult time.
I thought I want to reintroduce parents to their teens, so that they see that their teens still love them, that they remain dependent on that love, they still want their parents’ approval, they want their parents to see them and get to know them anew. And that urge is often shrouded by myths that teens are bound to rebel against their parents.
Anna Freud called adolescence, the psychological version of parent teen divorce.
She really thought that you still hear parents saying, ‘I know they want to separate from me, they want to be calm their individual person’.
They want to develop their own identity, different from their parents, but they also want that relationship to remain whole. But parents and adolescent [relationships] is actually made worse by parents inability to see what it is that teens really want from them. And so I want the parent to become the interpreter of the teen, the ability to read the teen. That’s the aim of the book.
Q: With everything going on in the world today, how does a parent interpret what it is their teenage boy or girl is telling them?
When you first have your child, parents are normally immensely curious about who this being is. They really want to get to know their child. And so they’re watching out for little signs. And you can see the rhythm. It has been described as a kind of dance, or choreography between parent and infant, as the parent is mirroring what the infant is doing. And the infant is just looking adoringly at the parent — that kind of thing seems to come very naturally to us.
What is much less natural is that warm, open curiosity towards a teen, but the teens still needs it — not in the same way, not to the same extent, not in minute-by-minute detail as the child did as an infant — but still needs it. And so, learning again to retain that warm, curious step from what often seems like an attack and a rejection. You hear parents say, I can never say the right thing. Every time I open my mouth, she complains. I can’t do anything for her. You should step away from that, and take a new look at what messages the teen is giving you. Read those new messages, because often the teen is saying ‘you’re not keeping up to date with me. You think I’m the little child. I’m really very different. But you’re not taking this in and you’re acting on old assumptions and I want you to see me knew’.
So often the teen will try to sort of rattle off a parent, shake her out of those old assumptions about who I am. In the book, I’m trying to give her the kind of toolbox and a context for interpreting the teens irritability, those identity reminders, the emotional upheaval that sometimes is just put down to teen hormones but is much more complex and interesting than that.
During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Apter also discusses:
- The brain science facts parents’ should know about to better understand their teen
- Self-regulation strategies for parent and teen
- Teen-parent versus teen-peer relationships
- Research she was surprised by
- Why children need parents longer than society suggests