by Jem Shackleford – Mindfulness Teacher
“A teenager’s brain is like a Ferrari with bicycle brakes” – Dr Justin Coulson
At the time of writing we have been in lockdown for over a fortnight. And who knows how long it will be before things get back to normal? If you are sharing your home with one or more of Coulson’s ‘Ferraris with bicycle brakes’ then you might be fantasising about slashing their tyres and pouring sugar in the tank (to flog the metaphor) and hoping for the soothing balm of revenge to wash over you.
Sharing a house with teenagers can be a struggle at the best of times.
Sharing a house with teenagers can be a struggle at the best of times. Even when we parents can get away (to work, down the pub, to the football field or gym) and they are free to hang out with their friends, just taking up space or watching someone perfect a no-footer on their scooter, it is often a fractious co-existence. In the present situation all the faults, frictions and foibles are magnified and the minor scuffles of everyday life grow into full-blown warfare between two gangs – the adults and the adolescents.
The Ferrari analogy helps bring understanding about how the brains of teenagers differ from those of adults. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge, has also done fantastic research into the development of the adolescent brain. She and her team have found that rather than being fully developed, as was once thought, the adolescent brain continues to develop until the person is well into their twenties. This development is uneven. Just like your child’s physical appearance changes as they hit puberty, with hands and feet growing big and then the rest of the body ‘catching up’, so, too, the brain develops ‘unevenly’. For example, areas such as the limbic system (attuned to the rewards of risk taking) become fully formed before the pre-frontal cortex (PFC – the area of the brain responsible for planning, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour and developing social behaviour among others). This you perhaps aptly demonstrated yourself when you had that cigarette aged 14 when you knew it was not good for you but you wanted to fit in. Blakemore says that the brain is plastic and shaped by the influences that it finds itself subject to, but rather than seeing this as a problem, she suggests it represents an enormous opportunity for educational and social development.
Much of what we subject our teenagers to is not good for them.
It is also an excellent opportunity for us, as parents, to bring awareness to the situation in which our teenage children find themselves. By understanding what is happening to our children’s brains perhaps we might alter our responses and allow a more nurturing approach. Blakemore’s research shows us that much of what we subject our teenagers to is not good for them. Their circadian (body-clock) rhythms are all out of sync with the school day, which can make them feel permanently jet-lagged. Imagine dragging yourself off to work or having to function on only four or five hours sleep. GCSE exams come under much criticism from Blakemore as totally unsuited to the developmental stage of those taking them. It would be a bit like taking a driving test when our feet do not reach the pedals. The suspension of GCSE exams during this crisis might even be seen as a progressive step.
What role can mindfulness play in all this? Well, do not – I repeat do not – make your teenagers sit down and do a practice with you! Much better to practise yourself. Taking part in the daily MiSP online mindfulness practices is a start, if you do not already have a practice yourself (and please see the list of online mindfulness meditation at the end of this article). Making the space to be by yourself and with yourself can be one of the most nourishing things you can do during this period. By bringing as much space (mentally not physically) as you can to your situation, you might gain a new perspective on the dynamics between family members. This is sometimes called widening the ‘container’ of awareness and bringing this to the situation, we can try to recognise how it might be for our teenage children. If we accept that an adolescent’s brain does not find it easy to take into account someone else’s point of view, we might consider any unthinking behaviour in a different light.
An adolescent’s brain does not find it easy to take into account someone else’s point of view
Maybe we can regard this period as a fantastic opportunity for us to help our teenage children? Bringing mindful awareness to a situation is the first step. It does not resolve all the frictions and battles, but can allow space to enable us to respond more skilfully.
What if we let our teenagers stay in bed until they wanted to get up, and go to bed when they were tired, rather than at their usual school-day time? It is still possible to maintain a healthy routine by asking your teenager what time they want to get up and go to bed and making them stick to those times. Read up on teenage circadian rhythms and explain to your child why you are doing this.
What if we showed them how to relate to others by acting in a way that clearly demonstrated an understanding of another’s point of view? Rather than just telling them, ‘This is what you must do’, watch the news together, look at data and graphs of infection rates, discuss what is happening and ask why the lockdown is important for the protection of others more vulnerable than us. You can then ask them, ‘What do you think we should do now? How can we help?’
Growing independence and a need to connect with their peers are very strong drives in adolescence. Perhaps we should be encouraging them to connect regularly with their friends (they probably have many ways of doing this online already so we might learn some tricks ourselves!). Justin Coulson suggests getting them to have a film or quiz night when everyone sits down to watch the same film, or answers questions set by others, in their respective homes. They can watch ‘together’ via apps such as Houseparty (which they probably already have and can show you how it works).
Whatever we do, it is important to remember that we are in this for a while. Whether we look at it with dread, or use it to reappraise and create new opportunities, it will still be the same amount of time.
To finish here’s a thought from one of my heroes – Nick Cave. He’s a parent who knows deep suffering, who meditates regularly and, to my mind, has incredible insight:
When we eventually step clear of this moment, we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant. Nick Cave – Red Hand Files Issue #90 March 2020.
Finally, perhaps we ought to remember that our teenagers are beautiful, creative, and adaptable individuals. And our future.
Mindfulness and other useful inks:
MiSP Daily Mindfulness Practice
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s TED Talk on the Teenage Brain
Justin Coulson’s website on Happy Families
Oxford Mindfulness Centre’s mindfulness sessions and podcasts
10% Happier’s Coronavirus Sanity Guide
Gaia House (Insight Meditation in the Buddhist Tradition) Online Dharma Hall
8 Mindfulness Exercises for Dealing with Covid-19
Some useful books
Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah Jayne Blakemore
Everyday Blessings: Mindfulness for Parents by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn