Child violence and brain changes in puberty

The brain changes during adolescence can make us moody, impulsive and emotional. It's also a phase when we rebel against our parents and conform with our peers. Would these changes make teenagers violent?

There are some big changes happening in the brains of adolescents.

As a natural part of puberty our brains switched from “general all round learning” mode of childhood to “specialised in-depth interest” mode as teens.

It does this by pruning knowledge and skills it does not need and building better connections between the parts of the brain it does need.

At the same time as these big changes are going on, we see the big impact that hormones can have on the brain.

There are physical impacts of those hormones which include making the teenager more tired, especially in the mornings.

There are also some developmental impacts of those hormones. As teenagers we are programmed to rebel against our parents and prefer our peers as part of establishing our own identity.

Here is one of my favourite quotes about teenagers.

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.”

Hesiod, 8th century BC

Did you see when it was written? This quote is 2,700 years old. So thinking the youth of today are out of control is not a new phenomenon.

Being sulky, rebellious and argumentative are normal parts of teenage development.

We can expect some raised voices, some stamped feet.

Let’s dig into this a bit more

Teenage emotions

The flood of testosterone onto a boys brain or estrogen and progesterone onto girls brain is a roller-coaster, especially as there are big fluctuations in these hormones during puberty.

The brain can be grouped into three areas. 

The brain stem (sometimes called the reptilian brain) is the earliest part of our brain to develop. This grows while we are still a foetus waiting to be born. Every animal has it, it’s the part which controls fight, flight, freeze. If you watch wildlife documentaries, you might sometimes see animals being born and needing to run for their life straight away. Fight, flight, freeze in action.

The mid area of the brain (sometimes called the mammal brain) develops in childhood. It is really good at sensations, relationships and feelings. Where am I? What can I see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Who am I with? Can I trust them? Can we play? This part gets a big developmental boost during adolescent years. 

The frontal cortex (sometimes called the human brain) is the part of the brain that controls rational thought, reason, logic and sequences. This is the last part of the brain to develop and will not fully grow until a person is about 25 years old. No wonder teenagers are not always rational.

Furthermore, everyone’s brain is programmed to revert back to the fight flight freeze response when faced with a threat. This makes evolutionary sense. If a snake is about to eat you, you don’t have time to wonder what species of snake it is or wonder what the snake feels like and if it wants to play with you. Those things are not going to keep you safe.

The brain responds to threat by “flipping its lid” and taking the front and middle areas offline so it can prioritise the survival strategies. This is a really good trick for threats like snakes and bears. It’s not so useful for threats like mum telling you to do your chores.

You can help teenagers to regulate by helping them to engage their middle brains first.

This might be co-regulation, staying with a teen and staying calm yourself so you can be that anchor in the storm.

It might be using music or art to engage the mid brain and sooth them and to give them a creative language for their emotional experiences.

Independance

The terrible twos and teenage years are both known as tricky stages for parents. They are also phases of big change and growing independence.

At both ages, the child feels that they are maturing and can have more responsibility because they are big now. They will push boundaries to assert their independence.

It’s important for parents to set clear boundaries for both of these ages. Yes there will be some changes in what is allowed. The toddler will start to explore the world and walk around but will know how far away they can go before they are called back. The teenager will be allowed to spend time with friends but will know what time they are expected back home. Where the parent wants the boundaries to be and where the child wants them to be may not be the same and this can cause conflict. Sometimes a compromise may be needed. Sometimes clarity might be needed.

“I know that you want … I understand it is important to you because … I care about you a lot and as your mum, I also know that it is my job to keep you safe and I don’t think that is appropriate right now. We can revisit this when you have finished your exams this summer.”

Using a five-step structure like the above is good.

Risk Taking

Because the rational part of the brain is the slowest to mature. And because the hormones are fluctuating and affecting mood and motivation, the teenage years for risk taking and impulsivity.

This can be good; taking risks allows us to try new things, to become more independent, to speak up for what we believe in.

Where the impulsivity or risk taking are negatively impacting on other members of the family, the child may need to be redirected towards more appropriate risk taking. Can they take up a new hobby, learn a new skill, achieve a new challenge.

Is violence normal for teenagers?

Being impulsive and taking risks is normal for teenagers.

Being rebellious and pushing boundaries is normal for teenagers.

Having fluctuating emotions is normal for teenagers.

Violent behaviour is not a normal part of being a teenager but could be a sign that your teen is struggling with the changes they are going though.

If the violent behaviour is linked to difficulties with puberty, we recommend:

  • Consistent parenting – be the anchor through their storm.
  • Be loving – show them that you still like them “Even though you broke the phone, I still love you”
  • Be empathetic and show understanding “I understand that you want to feel in control, aggression is not the way”. 
  • Provide age-appropriate opportunities for expression and risk taking; sports such as boxing or martial arts can provide the outlet and the mentoring of how to control those impulses.
  • Support with regulating through connection, creativity, providing a safe environment.
 
Next time we are going to dig deeper into some other factors which can influence child aggression.

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Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

Neglect, Preoccupied or Anxious Attachment and control

If a child’s needs are not met in the early years they are likely to develop low self-esteem and to learn to be controlling or manipulative in relationships with others. This can include friendships, family relationships, romantic relationships and professional relationships.

Child violence and brain changes in puberty

The brain changes during adolescence can make us moody, impulsive and emotional. It’s also a phase when we rebel against our parents and conform with our peers. Would these changes make teenagers violent?

Scared of my child

Child to parent violence affects one in ten families and there was an increase in police reports during lockdown. What is this hidden side of domestic abuse?