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Event at Trinity Park, Ipswich, will reveal what’s really going on in the teenage brain

PUBLISHED: 11:56 03 October 2017 | UPDATED: 11:56 03 October 2017

Katie Lawson and Lucy Flack, founders of a new parenting organisation called Huddl.

Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Katie Lawson and Lucy Flack, founders of a new parenting organisation called Huddl. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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Why are teenagers so impulsive, sleepy and emotional and how can parents held them navigate these sometimes difficult years? Expert Dr Rosemary Taylor will be giving her tips to Suffolk parents next week. She told Sheena Grant more...

Dr Rosemary Taylor, who will be speaking at Huddl's next parenting event in Ipswich, which focuses on the changing teenage brain.
Photo: HuddlDr Rosemary Taylor, who will be speaking at Huddl's next parenting event in Ipswich, which focuses on the changing teenage brain. Photo: Huddl

The moment when Harry Enfield’s 1990s comedy creation Kevin the teenager turns 13, instantly morphing from bouncy, good-humoured 12-year-old into moody, unreasonable youth, has become a television classic, precisely because it’s so well-observed.

For Kevin’s long-suffering parents the transformation is horrific to behold.

“He’s losing the power of rational thought,” they wail, his mother sobbing as his father continues: “It’s just a phase - it will only last four or five years.”

Parents of teenagers across the country will know how they feel. But for many it’s no laughing matter. Teenage years have long been associated with the seemingly paradoxical traits of lethargy and rebellion, know-it-all confidence and crippling self-doubt. Consequently, they can be a roller-coaster for parents too.

Dr Charlie Easmon is also speaking at the Huddl event on October 10.
Photo: HuddlDr Charlie Easmon is also speaking at the Huddl event on October 10. Photo: Huddl

But actually, says behavioural psychologist and former headteacher Dr Rosemary Taylor, whose specialisms include understanding the teenage brain, Kevin’s ‘parents’ were wrong. The ‘teenage’ phase is a lot longer than four or five years. It can start as early as nine in girls and ten-and-a-half in boys and continue until the age of 24. And it may help to understand that the challenging behaviour and intense emotions that can accompany these years are driven by something more than hormones and a desire for independence.

“There is actually significant neurological change going on in the teenage brain,” says Dr Taylor, who will be speaking in Ipswich on October 10 at an event organised by Huddl, a new parenting support social enterprise founded by Suffolk mums Katie Lawson and Lucy Flack.

“In order for the brain to reach a state of adulthood it has to prune back childhood thinking and behaviours. A lot of that happens in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls behaviour, planning ahead and the urge to take risks. And while the thoughtful, rational part of the brain develops the emotional, impulsive part of the brain can take over for a while.”

New science

Scientists have begun learning about this only relatively recently.

“It was the advent of MRI scanners in the 1990s that allowed us to look at living brains in action rather than looking at the brains of dead people in the laboratory,” says Dr Taylor. “These neurological changes can affect some young people more than others. If we are not careful we can make a difficult time even worse. We need to manage it and understand what’s going on.”

Vulnerable time

With so many changes happening it is important young people are protected and nurtured at this vulnerable time, says Dr Taylor. However, their growing desire for independence, which may involve rebellion against parental authority, can make that difficult. That’s why it’s important to keep communicating.

“There is a separation going on. As they pull away from parents they lean on friends even more. That is why friendships can become everything and why it can be so devastating if things go wrong. If your child tells you they hate you, don’t retaliate. If they tell you to go away you have to find a reason to stay. When they say they are fine, usually they are not fine. If you do respond in anger, apologise. Teaching them to manage their own behaviour involves modelling good behaviour to them.”

During this time of change the teenage brain is also extra vulnerable to the effects of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, says Dr Taylor.

“Any substance used during this development stage can have a long-term effect on the brain, making young people more vulnerable to things such as depression, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder later on.

“Growing up has always been difficult but there are added pressures now, particularly with social media. Bullies can reach you 24 hours a day. It is a case of monitoring it as a parent, keeping online access to devices in family rooms and having a cut-off time each day.”

Technology is also contributing to sleep deprivation among teenagers, whose brains crave rest and are also affected by changing sleep patterns.

“Lack of sleep affects memory, crucial when you are studying for exams,” says Dr Taylor.

Give and take

For all the difficulties, allowing young people increased freedom is an important part of growing up. Helping them to choose healthy ‘risks’, such as sport or travel, over harmful ones is part of that.

“Parents may need to judge the level of risk increased freedom brings, as that is what teens are not very good at doing,” says Dr Taylor. “Let them go and meet friends but give them a deadline for getting home. Discuss potential scenarios and what they might do about them, say if they get stuck or run out of money. They are not very good at thinking ahead. And don’t get at them about everything. The state of their bedroom might seem important now but it probably won’t matter when you look back in a few years’ time.”

Key questions - and answers

Huddl’s Changing Teenage Brain event takes place at 7pm on October 10 at Trinity Park, Ipswich, and aims to answer questions about what’s going on in our children’s heads at this key stage of life, why everything can be so overwhelming and reactionary and how we can communicate better.

It will also include a talk by Dr Charlie Easmon, who lectures in schools across the country on recognising and preventing mental ill health.

The event is the second in a series of parent talks organised by Huddl this autumn. The third one, focusing on anxiety, grit and resilience, takes place on November 14.

Huddl founder and mum-of-three Katie Lawson says: “We hope the events will give parents the confidence and knowledge to help their children and feel empowered. The idea is that Huddl will become a community of mutual support, compassion and learning and offer a platform for parents to gain knowledge and practical tools to deal with their difficult and ever-changing role.”

There are plans to roll Huddl out further, perhaps even nationwide, with a regular newsletter, blogs and webinars, parent conferences, regional advisers and family festivals. As a social enterprise, 10% of Huddl’s profits will go to charity - Suffolk Mind will benefit from the first three Trinity Park events.

■ To find out more and book tickets visit www.huddl.uk, #jointhehuddl, www.facebook.com/HuddlParenting/.

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