Podcast for Parents: Learning About the Teen Brain - Steve Barkley

Podcast for Parents: Learning About the Teen Brain

Learning About the Teen Brain

Tara Brown, who has been called the “Teen Whisperer,” shares what we know about the teen brain and how that knowledge can support parents in understanding teen needs.  She describes the teen brain as a Maserati with bicycle brakes. Tara is an experienced teenager and parent life coach.

Visit Tara’s website here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!


Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, at times, even somewhat conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.

Steve: 00:34 Learning about the teen brain. Joining our podcast today is Tara Brown, an experienced teacher, coach, educator, trainer, and consultant. Her website says that she’s been described as the “teen whisperer” and she’s also been described as “Tara the tiger,” so I’m anxious to hear her words. Those phrases are based on her connection with building relationships and building connections with teens. I know her enthusiasm and I also know her commitment to successful lives for all students. So I’m delighted that she’s joining us today. Welcome Tara.

Tara: 01:13 I am thrilled to be here, Steve. Thank you.

Steve: 01:16 So what is it about working with teens – and I know you’ve got a ton of experience, what is it about working with teens that feeds your energy?

Tara: 01:26 Well, they’re a hot mess, so they tickle me, but they’re just in such a place of potential and they just need so much help. They just do. And when you have a teenager who has a support of really caring adults and you have that network that is going to catch them when they fall and they will, it’s exciting. It’s exciting to help them explore. They’re trying on new things. They’re cutting their hair different, they’re exploring new music. Everything is them trying to figure out who am I separate from my parents? It’s that time period where they’re beginning to pull away from their parents and find out who they are as an individual. And it’s a really cool time. It can be very confusing and scary, and they just need a lot of support. And I just love being there and helping navigate and be a touchstone for them in those times where they’re sometimes lost as an Easter egg, because it can be really, really confusing becoming your own person and figuring out what do I like aside from my parents. So, yeah, it’s an exciting time.

Steve: 02:44 I was interested when you raised the issue of the phrase, “the teen brain.” So what is it that parents should know about the teen brain that would increase our understanding and maybe decrease some of the frustrations we have at times?

Tara: 03:03 Well, this will probably send a chill through parents, but I’m just gonna say it anyway. The teen brain is like a Maserati engine with bicycle breaks. That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s proposition. And then on of that, and I don’t wanna be a Debbie Downer, but when a child hits puberty, the risk center and the pleasure center come online. Think about that. You’ve got a Maserati engine with bicycle breaks, your impulse control isn’t there and the risk center and the pleasure center of both fully online in that process. That’s some craziness. And so I hear a lot of adults say, “well, we need to give teenagers more space and more freedom and hands off.” And it’s like, oh no, no, that’s the worst thing we can do. Yes, we’ve gotta give them some leash, yes, we’ve gotta allow them to “drive it in the ditch.”

Tara: 04:04 I’ve told parents and I’m working, when I’m life coaching with their kid, stop being so protective. We’ve got to let them drive it in the ditch metaphorically because we are here. What better time for them to drive it in the ditch and make bad decisions than right now when they have the support system sp we can go, okay, let’s reassess. That was a really bad decision, but okay. It’s not life altering. It’s just one of those learning moments. And right now, when we’re looking at the teen brain, in the midst of understanding that yes, it’s a Maserati engine, bicycle brakes, it also is a time where if parents can step back and not take things personal and they can look at the brain and go, “oh, that’s just a hot mess right there,” then you’re kind of detached from what you’re hearing. Because another thing with the teen brain, the pruning process is happening.

Tara: 04:57 And the pruning process is basically, when you sit down with your computer and you go through and you delete files because you’re not using them, that’s exactly what the brain is doing during this time period. It’s going through files and going, nah, I haven’t used it. Don’t need it. Get rid of it. Well, once you free up some space in the hard drive, then mylonization happens and that’s where the neural pathways get, get covered with this coating, which actually increases the speed at which processing takes place. That’s scary too, Steve, because again, we don’t have impulse control until the prefrontal cortex comes online and that’s not gonna come online until our twenties. And so, we now have the risk center, the pleasure center online, we’re wanting both of those. The thought process is now speeding up because that mylonization happened. So it’s like we put WD-40 on our neural pathways.

Tara: 05:54 And things come outta kids’ mouths lightning speed is sometimes they don’t make a lick of sense. You could ask any parent you stop on the street, “have you ever had an argument with your child?” And they say things like this, and then you’re like, that doesn’t make sense. Yes, that’s why. Because the impulse control isn’t there, but the thought process is so quick. So things are just like rapid firing and sometimes – whew, man, kids can be brutal with what they say. And sometimes, if parents can just step back and go, “oh, okay, this is a brain that’s just a hot mess. It wasn’t anything personal. They didn’t even have time to think about what they were saying. It just came out.” Sometimes that can diffuse a situation.

Steve: 06:33 Sounds like “step back” is a big phrase.

Tara: 06:36 Step back and make sure that your cortisol level – that’s one of the things when I’m doing life coaching with teens, a lot of times I’m life coaching with the parents. Because it’s like, there will be nothing that comes out of you chasing your child down the hallway to say, we’re gonna talk about this and their cortisol level’s up and your cortisol level’s up. There’s nothing good’s gonna come from that. And so, yeah, it’s gotta be the parent that should model the adult behavior.

Steve: 07:03 Yeah. I may need to step back to pull myself together before just giving them some time. Huh?

Tara: 07:12 Yeah.

Steve: 07:13 Well, I thought I’d structure something different here I haven’t done before in an interview. I’ve just pulled together a list of words and I thought I’d toss the words out to you one at a time and have you have you respond to how that word fits into parenting teens. Okay?

Tara: 07:35 Sure.

Steve: 07:35 So the first one, I think we touched on a little bit and that’s risk taking. How does risk taking fit into parenting teens?

Tara: 07:42 Two things that jump out. On the parent side, sometimes parents have to risk.

Tara: 07:48 And I encourage parents all the time. Please sometimes just take your parenting hat off and just be, just be with your kid. Just hang out with your kid, let them see different sides of you other than instructive, telling them what to do. Just be. And that’s risky for some parents because they’re really good at the instructional side and they’re telling you what to do side, but letting them kind of see you differently, that’s risky. On the teen side, understanding that we you’ve got to help keep it inside the rails because kids are gonna be taking risks constantly, I think probably is a huge thing for parents to understand that is a drive. It’s a huge drive for teens. They are seeking ways for satisfying taking risks.

Steve: 08:37 So as a parent, I need to create the opportunities for the risk with the risk being within some kind of “safety net,” is a word I use sometimes.

Tara: 08:49 Yes, you have to have those parameters, but we’ve gotta get parents to understand, because if I had a dollar for every time, a
parent said, “oh, my child would never, blah, blah, blah.” And it’s like, if your child’s breathing oxygen, your child probably will.

Steve: 09:01 .

Tara: 09:03 Because the other thing we haven’t talked about is how much peer approval trumps parent approval during this process, which again is
very scary, but that’s where we are. So you have risks and then I’m seeking the approval of my peers. That’s important. And so yes, parents have got to accept it doesn’t matter how well you’ve reared them, if your child’s breathing oxygen, your child just might. And so then we can put in those parameters.

Steve: 09:29 It sounds like you maybe touched on my next word a little bit and that’s praise.

Tara: 09:33 Sometimes parents get really good at correcting and forget finding the good. Go seek out when your kid does something good and celebrate those little wins. And for some teenagers and some parent interaction, those wins might not come very often because it might be head-butting a lot. But if you see that a child does something, find the good and praise it. Absolutely.

Steve: 10:03 Failure.

Tara: 10:05 This is probably one of the biggest challenges that I have with teenagers in how they view it based on the messaging they’ve gotten from parents and having the fixed mindset or the growth mindset and understanding that failure is an absolute part of the process. It’s not a reflection on you as a person. It is absolutely tied into you taking risk and learning and failure is a part of the process. And creating that environment that embraces failure, of course there’s gonna be failures in the midst of us journeying through to mastery. Then it diffuses a lot of that perfectionistic that fear of trying and allows for that child to find a way to see himself separate from the failure. Because a lot of teenagers tie those two together and it can be very damaging into their self-esteem.

Steve: 11:00 Next word, celebrations.

Tara: 11:03 That goes back to finding the good and praising it and finding ways to celebrate a child and their growth process. Regardless of if
it looks like, what I as the parent think it’s gonna look like. And that’s one of the biggest areas for parents to accept my child might not go down the path that I think they’re gonna go. They might take a total left turn and their life trajectory might be totally different than what I think it’s supposed to look like. And am I as a parent okay with that? Am I okay in that I am celebrating those left turns? Because a child is constantly trying and they need to feel from the parent that they have the approval and the unconditional love and support. And for some parents, that’s really hard because they have not been able to let go of what I think that child’s life is supposed to look like. And again, the teen life is finding out who am I separate from my parents? And so that process can be difficult on both sides.

Steve: 12:12 Two words left – emotions.

Tara: 12:15 Here’s the thing that I really help parents understand is that the teen brain filters everything through the emotional filter. They
have to connect things that are coming in. They have to make sense, and they do it through the emotional filter. That means they get it wrong a lot. You ask any parent if you’ve ever said something to your teen and they blow up and say, “why are you screaming at me? Or why are you so upset?” And you’re sitting there going, “I wasn’t even raising my voice.” The total misinterpretation of stimulus that happens all the time. Teenagers are really bad at interpreting facial expressions. Research has shown they’re really bad at it. So if parents can understand the emotions that are going through the kid’s body and brain, sometimes they don’t make a lick sense. And again, not to take it personal, just step back and go, whew a hot mess right there. Bless your heart. Yeah. Okay. We’re gonna love you anyway, but yeah, the emotions are all over the map for a lot of reasons.

Steve: 13:18 And my last word, perseverance.

Tara: 13:21 Whew. I don’t know who needs more Parents have got to just keep believing it ain’t gonna be like this forever. Parents get a
whole lot smarter the older kids get into their twenties and thirties. Their IQ juste exponentially explodes. It’s hilarious how that happened. But so for parents, yeah, sometimes just know, okay, we’re just gonna white knuckle it through this period sometimes and we’re gonna love them anyway, just keep loving them up. But the perseverance side with how the parent shows up consistently is imperative for that child to have the creativity and the freedom to explore and learn more about him or herself.

Steve: 14:01 I think I’m hearing consistency is a pretty important word here across the board.

Tara: 14:05 Huge, huge.

Steve: 14:08 Is there another word that that you’d add to the list of the ones that I tossed out here to you?

Tara: 14:15 Frustration probably is something that for parents, the more they learn about the teen brain, it really, really does help with kind of taking the pressure valve and releasing some of that. And I encourage parents all the time, not to not to lose their sense of humor, not to take it sore seriously all the time. I mean, teens can be really, really funny. They can really bring a lot to the table, but because of the headbutts, a lot of times, the relationship gets in the muck and just always trying to come back to knowing this isn’t gonna be like this all the time, but it’s a necessary process and kind of embracing the messiness along the way.

Steve: 15:01 Well thanks so much for what you’ve shared here. I’m wondering – talk a little bit about how parents might connect with you, or I’m also thinking there’s probably school folks that are looking for some workshops for parents that that you might be able to offer.

Tara: 15:19 Yeah, I do a lot of parent engagements, and that really is the biggest thing that I focus on is the teen brain and helping parents understand that. And when I’m doing life coaching, I have a section on my website, theconnectioncoach.org, and I work with teenagers all the way up into the early twenties for a variety of things. It’s enjoyable because no teenager is the same and the challenges are different. So yeah, there’s a lot of different ways that we can engage and support them.

Steve: 15:54 Well, terrific. Thanks so much for what you do for kids and parents and teachers who support kids. I appreciate your work.

Tara: 16:04 You as well, friend. Thank you for having me.

Steve: 16:08 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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