Reflective Parenting: Navigating Teen Brains Towards Resilience

Summary: A new study emphasizes the importance of understanding the teenage brain to foster resilience and independence in adolescents. The approach, reflective parenting, encourages parents to go beyond addressing challenging behaviors, aiming instead to help teenagers manage their feelings and relationships safely.

Highlighting the significant neurological changes during adolescence, including the reorganization of biobehavioral systems and the dominance of emotional processing, This method seeks to improve communication and understanding between parents and teens.

Key Facts:

  1. Teen Brain Development: Adolescence involves significant brain changes, with a shift from emotional to more rational processing still underway into the mid-twenties, affecting decision-making and emotional regulation.
  2. Reflective Parenting Techniques: This approach focuses on understanding the underlying emotions and thoughts driving a teenager’s behavior, fostering open dialogue and empathy to navigate challenges together.
  3. The Importance of Boundaries and Mental Health Support: While reflective parenting promotes a deeper connection, maintaining boundaries and seeking professional help for serious mental health concerns remains crucial.

Source: Taylor and Francis Group

Helping teenagers to understand what is going on inside their own brains is the key to helping them mature into resilient and independent adults, research suggests.

Sheila Redfern, a consultant clinical child and adolescent psychologist, proposes that rather than focusing on stamping out difficult behaviours, parents should teach teenagers to manage their feelings and relationships in safe ways.

Dr. Redfern says that although parenting teenagers is uniquely challenging, with concerns about social media use, self-harm, risk-taking and other difficult behaviour, this stage can be full of enjoyment and connection.

This shows a teenaged girl.
Dr. Redfern acknowledges that being a reflective parent – simultaneously being aware of what’s in your own mind and being empathic and curious about the teenage mind – is difficult. Credit: Neuroscience News

In her new book How Do You Hug a Cactus? Reflective Parenting with Teenagers in Mind, she advocates for reflective parenting – which involves trying to understand what goes on in the teenage brain – as essential for building resilience and security in young people, to navigate through the storm and stress of adolescence.

What is going on in a teenage brain?

“Understanding the neuroscience of the changing teenage brain can really help parents to empathize and connect with their teenage children,” Dr. Redfern explains.

“This is not just a time of physical and neurological change, but also of great vulnerability. It’s during this period of development that teenagers are much more likely to engage in risky behavior and develop a mental illness.”

The statistics from the UK NHS research on child and adolescent mental health show that in young people aged 17 to 19 years, the rate of mental health problems rose from 1 in 10 in 2017 to 1 in 4 in 2022 – the biggest challenge to mental health being anxiety and depression.

“The focus in reflective parenting is on keeping a connection with your teenager and helping them to manage, sometimes overwhelming and unwanted, feelings,” Dr. Redfern explains. “This is one of the most important skills for life you can teach your teenager.”

Dr. Redfern explains that while we used to think most emotional development occurred in childhood and was fully formed by around age 7, we now know that this continues into early adulthood.

There are three basic biobehavioural systems that enable humans to adapt to our complex social environment: the reward system; the mentalizing, or ‘social cognition’ system, which is our capacity to understand ourselves and others in terms of our feelings, desires, and values; and finally the stress and threat system.

“During adolescence, these three biobehavioural systems are being reorganized in the brain and, put very simply, this reorganization of the systems leads to patterns of thinking, behavior and responses to others, including parents, which may be difficult to understand, seem illogical, highly reactive or self-destructive,” she explains.

“Where adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part, teenagers process information with the amygdala – this is the emotional part. This leads teenagers to be preoccupied with their own emotions, particularly when they have an overwhelming emotion, and less able to tune into other people.

“When we look at brain development, it’s factually inaccurate to describe an 18-year-old as an adult. Our brains haven’t fully developed until we’re in our mid-twenties, From the age of 18 until around 25 years old, sometimes even later, our brains are still developing,” Dr. Redfern explains.

How to parent in a reflective way

Dr. Redfern points to research suggesting the best way to help a teenager is to parent in a reflective way – this means not just focusing on the behavior but what is going on in their mind.

Reflective parenting allows parents to support teenagers in coming with their own ideas about how they are going to meet challenges when these arise: “By drawing out from your teenager how they are planning to solve difficulties, without pointing out flaws but simply offering another perspective of any potential downsides, you will learn how to mentalize yourself and your teenager in a way that helps them to thrive, gain independence and develop skills for life, while staying connected to you.”

Dr. Redfern warns that parents who solely focus on fixing behavior will leave their teenager not feeling understood or unable to manage the feelings that lie underneath.

As teenagers lose their ability to be reflective because of changes in their brain, resulting in frequent states of high emotional arousal, parents can step in and help guide the process.

This emotionally-charged brain can make assumptions that feel like fact – thoughts like ‘no one likes me, I am alone’ – and adolescents are much more likely to slip into these mindsets. Dr. Redfern suggests it is the job of a reflective parent to help them recover their capacity to mentalize – that is, to regain awareness, understanding and control over their emotions.

The aim of helping teenagers practice this is to restore their ability to understand what’s going on in other’s minds and appreciate different perspectives, as well as understand what’s going on in their own minds.

Dr. Redfern points out that while reflective parenting may bring about a greater connection between you and your teen, and hopefully even a calmness and enhanced understanding of your relationship – it is important to maintain strong boundaries.

“Reflecting on thoughts and feelings alone is not the type of parenting being advocated here. Boundaries still count, and so does parental authority,” she explains. “There is no one-size-fits-all parenting manual but all parents can use the framework of reflective parenting to help navigate teens through the adolescent years.”

Guiding teens through difficult feelings

One key concept of reflective parenting is for parents to also check in with themselves – asking themselves if they are experiencing strong emotions and need to regulate before approaching a conversation.

Then the parent can approach a teen’s emotional distress using validation and empathy, by describing how they are feeling and avoid putting their own opinion across.

“You take this self-reflective step first, then you can give your full attention and curiosity to your teenager’s perspective, and they will experience you as somebody steady, consistent and trustworthy,” she explains. “This can be extremely hard for parents as we worry a lot about our teenagers and regulating emotions is difficult sometimes.”

Dr. Redfern acknowledges that being a reflective parent – simultaneously being aware of what’s in your own mind and being empathic and curious about the teenage mind – is difficult.

“None of us can be a reflective parent all of the time, because our emotions rise and fall along with events that happen in our lives and as a result of the support (or lack of) that we get from other people,” she explains. “If we’re doing this reasonably well, then we would expect to be mentalizing around 30% of the time.”

She also suggests that if parents have serious concerns about their teen’s mental health, seeking professional help and advice is key.

About this parenting and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Becky Parker-Ellis
Source; Taylor and Francis Group
Contact: Becky Parker-Ellis – Taylor and Francis Group
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

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