Saturday, 12 August 2017

Teen brains and getting them to do things: Why limiting the number of instructions and making messages clear is so important

We've long known that in the first few years of their lives a child's brain goes through a tremendous 'growth spurt' and, during this time, they learn so much. Almost in spite of you, they are able to pick up on every little thing that goes on around them and it is often difficult for parents to keep up with the constant changes that are taking place. The teen years, on the other hand, are not usually seen as a key time for positive changes! This is a time usually associated with risk-taking behaviour and few parents realize that even during this difficult period, adolescent brains are continuing to develop. In fact, if teens are given the opportunity, this can actually be, as neuroscientist, mother and author of the book The Teenage Brain, Frances Jensen describes it, a "golden age for their brains!"

After the growth spurt that occurs around 10-13 years of age (a time when new neurons and synapses are being created, forming new pathways) the teen brain starts to 'prune' these pathways. The brain does not need to keep all that has been produced and so, with experience, the unused pathways are eliminated. This is often referred to as the 'use it or lose it' stage and actually leads to the adolescent brain becoming a "leaner, more efficient adult mental "machine.""

Although it may not always seem like it, the teen years are actually a time when the brain is learning at peak efficiency. In her book, Jensen highlights research that has found that one third of 13-17-year-olds actually "significantly raise their IQ" during this time of their life - there is indeed positive stuff happening! Unfortunately, there are other things that aren't functioning as well, including attention, self-discipline, task completion and emotions. These under-performing areas can often lead parents to feel incredibly frustrated, particularly when it comes to getting a teen to do anything, whether it be their homework, household chores or even just getting up to the dinner table ... To help parents in this area, Jensen suggests the mantra "one thing at a time" ...

"Try not to overwhelm your teenagers with instructions. Remember, although they look as though they can multitask, in truth they're not very good at it. Even just encouraging them to stop and think about what they need to do and when they need to do it will help increase blood flow to the areas of the brain involved in multitasking and slowly strengthen them. This goes for giving instructions and directions, too. Write them down for your teen in addition to giving them orally, and limit the instructions to one or two points, not three, four or five. You can also help your teen manage time and organize tasks by giving them calendars and suggesting they write down their daily schedules. By doing so on a regular basis, they train their own brains." 

Remember, you're trying to keep them using the pathways in the brain that you want them to keep. Giving your teen clear and simple instructions that are easy to understand strengthens those pathways. This idea is also incredibly important when it comes to setting limits and making rules.

I've referred to Robert MacKenzie's book, Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Teen a number of times recently. It's a great resource for parents, particularly for those who have that one child who just seems to love to 'push all your buttons' ... constantly! In one chapter of his book he provides some simple guidelines for giving a "clear, firm limit-setting message", none of which are particularly revolutionary, but a couple of them reinforce the notion of 'simple and clear':
  • keep the focus on behaviour - whatever you say should be about behaviour and not on attitude, feelings or worth of your teen
  • be specific and direct - what is it you want them to do (the fewer the words the better)?
  • use your normal voice - the tone of your voice can shift the focus away from behaviour onto feelings
  • specify the consequences for noncompliance - make it extremely clear about what will happen if they don't do as you ask
Using these tips, an example of a limit around attendance at a party or gathering or discussion around drinking alcohol could be as follows:

"I will be picking you up at 11.00pm. You need to be outside waiting at the letterbox at that time. If you are late you won't be going to a party next week." 

"You can go to the party but you know our rules around drinking - you are not allowed to drink alcohol. If you do drink, and we find out, you will not be allowed to go to the next party you want to go to."

The instructions are simple and can't be misinterpreted, (i.e., be at the letterbox at 11.00pm, you are not allowed to drink alcohol) and there aren't too many of them, ensuring the limit you have set is able to be managed effectively by the teen brain. Remember, giving instructions like this not only protects them from risky behaviour and potentially keeps them safer, it also 'trains their brain', reinforcing important neural pathways. The consequence of not following the request is also clear - all that remains is for you to follow-through should they not comply. What you don't want to do is to try to lay out limits in this area and make statements such as these:

"Now I want you home at a reasonable hour - I don't want to see you come home like you did last weekend. If you're too late I won't be happy and there'll be trouble." 

"You know how we feel about drinking. We would be terribly disappointed if we found out you had drunk alcohol at the party. Can you imagine what it would be like for us to get a phone call from a hospital saying that you had been brought in after drinking too much?" 

These are unclear and potentially confusing, leaving them open to interpretation. Who works out what "a reasonable hour" is, you or your teen? What does "too late" mean? You can guarantee their view on what time is suitable is dramatically different to yours. Do they actually know how you feel about drinking? As for potential consequences, "there'll be trouble" doesn't provide any real idea of what will actually happen should they come home late, and although telling your child you would be disappointed if they were caught drinking is important, it needs to be followed up with an unambiguous statement about what that behaviour will result in. Open-ended questions, such as asking them to see the situation from your perspective, are unlikely to be helpful when setting limits.

At the same time, parents also need to remember that much of a teen's response to the world is driven by emotion, not reason. This emotional response has huge consequences when it comes to asking them to follow rules and do other things that are asked of them, particularly when it comes to giving them instructions. During adolescence there is much less activity in the frontal lobes than there is for adults, making it harder for them to handle their emotions. This is why they can fly off the handle at the smallest thing and why so many parents suddenly start experiencing slamming doors, throwing things and screaming during the teen years.

This means, that as a parent, you've got to try to remove as much of the emotion out of your request as possible. Trying to throw a guilt-trip on a teen is not always going to work. I'm not saying you shouldn't tell them how you feel and how their behaviour has affected you and the rest of the family, but when it comes to the instruction you give them about limits and rules - remove the emotion! As MacKenzie suggests, you need to make it about the behaviour and not them ... You can almost guarantee that they will bring it back to them (remember the world, as well as the sun and all the stars revolve around them at this time in their life!), but if you limit the number of instructions you give them and make whatever it is that you want them do clear and simple, not only could it have a positive impact on their brain development, but it could make it all just a little easier for you ...

References
Jensen, F.E. & Ellis Nutt, A. (2015). The Teenage Brain. Harper Collins: New York.
MacKenzie, R.J. (2015). Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Teen. Harmony Books: New York.

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