Drama and the Amygdala

Notice how many pop-up ads there are this time of year about cleaning out and reorganizing our stuff? For some reason, we associate rearranging items with rearranging our mood. The holidays are over, spring break is months away, and the cold grayness of January and February do little to lift our spirits. Maybe if we reposition the furniture in the bedroom or clean out a closet or two, we will, to borrow from tidying-up guru Marie Kondo’s philosophy, find joy.

Children and teens also react to changes in the seasons, and February can be a low point in the year. A new semester brings the excitement of a fresh start but perhaps also disappointment over last semester’s grades. Starting new projects or units is exciting but can churn up worries. Standardized testing, which creates angst for many teens, is right around the corner for students at Brier Creek. Juniors may already be feeling a bit anxious about the college search even though that process won’t start formally until at least summer. Whereas adults may be able to change their mood by refolding t-shirts and organizing socks by color, adolescents have a tougher time because of what we now know about brain development.

Research over the past two decades has shown that the brain of adolescents is not fully formed in childhood but continues to grow and develop through the mid-twenties for young women and late twenties for young men. That is good news because it gives parents and teachers longer to coach young people in good decision making and mood management. The less good news is that while this evolution is in process, dealing with adolescent mood swings and meltdowns is a challenge.

Understanding the biology is helpful. Basically, the frontal region of the brain, which contributes logic to decision making, is underactive in adolescents. The limbic brain structures, which include the amygdala and control emotions, however, are working overtime. (This should not surprise any of us.) The problem, as Marwa Azab, Ph.D. at California State University explains it, is that the amygdala is doing its job, that is, warning the adolescent of danger, but because the frontal lobe is not fully developed, the youngster lacks the skills to assess the messages and determine whether the danger is “real, exaggerated, or imagined.” That is, not being able to “apply the brakes,” the adolescent may well react to a “Hello” she interprets as insincere the same way she would react to being chased by a large, hungry bear. Is it any wonder upset, anxiety, and drama are hallmarks of the adolescent years?

Does this scenario sound familiar?
• Parent: “How was school?”
• Adolescent: “I hate the drama!”
• Parent: “What happened?”

At that point, if an adolescent is interested in sharing, we hear about “the look,” or a slight of some kind, or a text, which the youngster has determined was mean or disingenuous. Of course, there can be unkind behaviors among students, and we must always address them. More frequently, as Azab explains, “teens are likely to interpret neutral stimuli as threatening” and perceive there is a crisis when none exists.

Parents also have a role to play. First, it is essential that we resist the temptation to join with our daughter or son in reacting immediately and emotionally to whatever an adolescent is sharing. Remember that the child does not yet have the cognitive capacity to assess and report accurately 100 percent of the time. Our job is to listen to children and teens and allow the rational processing skills we have honed over a lifetime to help them gain clarity and perspective.

Second, keep the lines of communication open and acknowledge feelings. When a youngster appears troubled, say something like, “I can tell you’re upset.” Then, invite the adolescent or teen to provide more detail: “I would be interested in hearing more about what has happened.”

Third, coach a daughter or son in how to reassess, gain a better understanding, and design a plan for moving forward. The best technique is to coach with questions. Here are a few you may want to keep handy.
• Have you thought about what you might do now?
• What would you like to see happen?
• Are there others who are upset? Might you find a time to talk with them about how to solve this problem?
• Which adult at school would be a good partner as you work through this situation?
• If you were advising a younger child about how to resolve this issue, what advice would you give?

By asking questions, we encourage more rational thinking in our adolescent, facilitate the healthy rewiring that is part of brain development, and remind students that not every upset is a hungry bear on the loose.


Decision-making is Still a Work in Progress for Teenagers


This article originally appeared in the February addition of Spice Box.