Dr. Sarah Sarkis joins the podcast to talk about the science and development of the teen brain.

As a parent, I sometimes feel like I am the first one ever to navigate this complicated thing called the teen brain but leaning on science and research is so helpful in reassuring me that what I am experiencing as a parent may feel unique but is also rooted in what is typical developmental norms.  While a teen brain might be fully grown in terms of size, all the neural wiring is not connected, which is why teens often struggle with emotion regulation, problem-solving, frustration tolerance, and sequencing.  As a parent, it can be frustrating and, in some instances, torturing to watch our kids struggle with things that seem so simple to our fully connected brains. I can sometimes feel like I did something wrong. That they do not see what I see.  Remembering the reality of this stage of development can help provide compassion to teens and for yourself as their parent.

Episode 57: The Teen Brain

“The good thing about us, our type of animal is that we are incredibly resilient … the great news is that we are made for bumps and bruises.”

– Dr. Sarah Sarkis

In this episode:

What I love about Dr. Sarkis is that she dives into the science and research behind how the brain works.  In this episode, we start off by talking about the inevitable friction of a child separating from parents during the teen years and how that can be hard for both the child and the parents.  However, it is a critical stage in development that I know to anticipate, but it doesn’t make it any easier when it happens.  We talk about how teens build some of that independence through online relationships and how that is so different from how we built our relationships in the past, but in many ways, the seeking of connection is the same.   Dr. Sarkis talks about how the size of a teen brain is fully grown but not all connected.  I picture a bunch of cords not plugged into outlets.  She talks about how this lack of connection, which is totally normal at this age, is what causes teens to struggle with emotion regulation, problem-solving, frustration tolerance, and sequencing.  These are the limitations that I know can be so hard for me as a parent to witness because some of them seem so basic; however, being reminded of the norms of this developmental stage help give me so much more compassion for my kids and myself.

We get into how hard it is to watch your kids struggle and how to manage the impulse to jump in to save them from the lesson they need for development. I know that I can be inclined to want to save my kids from hard consequences, but usually, those real-life lessons are what help them grow and learn the most.   I am growing and learning right along with them, whether I like it or not!  Temperament and how the nervous system regulates risk-taking behaviors can vary from child to child and may often be at odds with how much risk a parent can tolerate.  I am opposed to this harsh truth but turns out it is one of those realities that my kids continue to teach me.  I am learning way more about myself than I ever wanted to know.  I am guessing your kids are also teaching you more about yourself.  Dr. Sarkis has a great reminder that we are all just learning.  Our kids are learning how to be 11, it’s their first time, and it’s our first time as a parent of this child at 11.  I am co-learning with my kids constantly, and I think this helps take the pressure off that we should somehow already know how to parent like we know what we are doing.

Some things are known to help with this developmental stage, and one of the biggest factors for kids is sleep.  Helping kids create structure about healthy sleep habits can be critical and given that impulse control is not solid at this stage it can often mean that kids are not able to implement good sleep habits on their own.  I will admit that this was much easier when my kids were younger, but hearing the reminder helps me remember why it is still important to get in the game and not expect that my kids can set their own limits.  She says, without getting rigid, getting about 9 hours of sleep is optimal.  The last three hours of sleep are most impactful for emotional development and consolidation of learning.  When sleep is interrupted, it can interfere with learning and focus.

Technology boundaries are an ongoing work in progress in my house, and I know firsthand it is not easy.  Dr. Sarkis suggests working to have open communication about the topics you are most worried about online.  Creating a situation where you are available and open to any and all conversations is valuable, and trying to listen more than you talk goes a long way.  A sense of genuine curiosity will help you better understand your child.  Gender plays a big role during the teen years and beyond in how teens manage relationships, and we talk about how boys can often shake things off more quickly than girls may.  We discuss finding the balance between exploring and identifying emotions without getting into a rut of over-analysis.  We also talk about helping kids stay connected with their intuition and trusting their instincts.  You may wonder how that works with a brain not all the way connected, and that is a great question, and I think that is why this is all so hard!

I felt so reassured by everything Dr. Sarkis shares about what is normal and what to anticipate from teens.  It helps me give so much more compassion for my kids and myself as I navigate being a parent.

Unknown Speaker  0:00

Sarah, thank you so much for talking to me again. I know I feel like you're my celebrity expert here on all topics.

Unknown Speaker  0:10

Oh, well, I'm just honored to be invited back.

Unknown Speaker  0:14

Well, good. It's fun to be able to see your face, too. I know, I guess nobody can see that in the podcast. But you know, that's okay.

Unknown Speaker  0:21

It helps us. Yes, it does. It helps with digital connection, which we'll also cover today.

Unknown Speaker  0:27

Yes. So this series is about teenagers. And just so in my last episode, I was talking a little bit about how I had always thought this was like something far off for me. And now all of a sudden, I have the sixth grader. And I'm like, Okay, here we go. You know, I mean, he's not quite a teenager yet. But there's just a lot of this, like, sort of the groundwork for all these things I've heard about that I thought were way off in the distance. But So this series is about teenagers, and what we can do to help prepare ourselves as parents and support them through the changes that they're going to go through. And I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about sort of your practice? And do you see teenagers? Is that a part of your practice?

Unknown Speaker  1:13

Yeah, so I'm not a teenager, I don't actually my practice is not comprised entirely of teenagers, I used to work with adolescents and adults. Now I work with adults and families, professionals, etc. But I also have a latency age child, that's what a sixth grader is called in shrink land. And you're right, it is the ramp up. And then I just know a lot about adolescence, because I want to know about human development. And these are stages that and they they arise from the last one, and they inform the next one. So when I'm seeing people at 1819 20, and older, they're just having left adolescence. And so you have to, you know, you have to know the whole continuum.

Unknown Speaker  2:03

Right, what and what's interesting is somebody was telling me that adolescence is sometimes defined as that period of time where you're still connected to your family of origin. But, and you haven't gotten that full independence from them. And that sometimes that can be well later than what we typically have thought of as adolescents, if that makes sense. Like the person who still kind of has an adult adolescent mindset, when they're in

Unknown Speaker  2:32

that phenomenon, actually, it's great that you brought that up, there's sort of two ways you'll see this play out. in a clinical setting. One is oftentimes the the scenario that people are probably most familiar with his in family systems work, and specifically, when we talk with people that are struggling with addiction, will often talk about where they got arrested development, right. And it's not just a good TV show, it's a real thing. And what we mean by that is, when did they stop growing psychologically and emotionally. And oftentimes, you'll find at the period of time, in this case, in this example, where substances become a really dominant feature in their life, that they stopped growing and maturing. So even though they may come into my office, and b 35, they have components of their psyche, and their psychology that are still very, very adolescents. So you'll see it there. And then also, sometimes you'll see it, I've worked with people where there was extreme avoidance of the developmental milestones typical to adolescents. So sexuality separation, boundary, pushing all those kinds of things that are very normal, typical parts of adolescence. And they'll skip them, they'll skip them entirely. So you'll see them including all sexuality, and you'll see them, you know, in their 20s, or 30s, or 40s. And they will have an adolescent quality about them because they tried to skip it. And we can't skip anything. I mean, unless you avoid however

Unknown Speaker  4:02

much we wish we could. Right exact. Yeah, exactly. That's, that makes a lot of sense. And I think that that was one of the things in my last episode that I really took from the woman, Mary del Harrington, she has this grown and flown.

Unknown Speaker  4:17

Just looking at her stuff. She's fabulous.

Unknown Speaker  4:21

It's very cool, right? And it's what I love is that I feel like there's all these resources for like the baby like, you know, 100% to eat, sleep wake and like how to have a swaddle and you kind of think that if you check those boxes, you're good, like, just you're good for parenting. And then it's just this lifelong thing that we don't fully prepare ourselves for. But the thing that I love that she said was that it just never ends. And we have this mentality that like, okay, they're off. We're dying. Yes. And I think about even my parents, I mean, there's still worry or, you know, I mean, it's just, it's a never ending thing. So anyway, I love that we're getting the tools to figure out how to not just help the teenagers but also help ourselves as the adults and not bring our own crap into it. Yeah, cuz my mom doesn't like it when I say shit. And now I've said it.

Unknown Speaker  5:14

Yeah, that's a special one. Like you said, parents are always orbiting around parenting, right? There you go. Yeah, I mean, an adolescence sort of has its own kind of PR rap that it's gotten. And like a lot of like a lot of these kinds of trends, some of it is true. And some of it actually kind of doesn't bear out in the literature, the recent literature on the children that are in our jet, like the generation that we're raising. So that's really interesting. And that's why I love doing these podcasts because it really, it actually forces me to, like, think critically about a single topic, right? And so I this was just such a joy to get to, like, sit and really think about how we could have an interesting conversation about it, because I learned so much, so it's gonna make it

Unknown Speaker  6:09

well. I can't wait to hear you might just have to start talking because I wouldn't even know what to ask. Basically, I want reassurance that's my bottom line. That's why I'm doing this entire series is I want reassurance that I can't really mess it up. It's, it's what it's gonna be. It's gonna be. That's, that's my agenda. Just gonna put that out.

Unknown Speaker  6:30

That's hysterical. I'm glad that I was your phone a friend for that. It's an honor. Yeah, I mean, listen, generally, like, usually, it's usual. And the good thing about us our type of animal is that we're incredibly resilient. And while we don't fully understand why some people have a certain level of resilience, and some people have either less or even more, we know that it's a trait that's seen throughout our whole species. So the great news is that, you know, we're were entirely made for bumps and bruises. And adolescence, so for anybody listening, you know, it sort of goes from early childhood into this stage called latency, age, latency age starts around 10 and culminates at the onset of puberty. And the onset of puberty from a biologic definition would be for women, for girls at the age of menses, and for boys, like, you know, when they start to have when they start to have like, pubic hair and sexual desires, and, you know, and for women also, those same physical changes happen, right? So adolescence, like, the way that it has been kind of marketed, and it can, it is a developmental stage, that baked into the recipe is the friction of separation. It takes friction to sort of separate out and you can see adolescent kids starting to do that you can see sixth graders starting to ramp up with that, right? They get mouthy or they're pushing the boundaries even more in adolescents has that kind of really acutely, and they're getting growing independence where you know, an 11 year old doesn't have a license, right? So usually, a lot of 11 year olds won't kind of have like phones, or they'll still have bad times, there's things that you're still really day in and day out managing for them. And adolescents get much more freedom. And there's a lot of boundary pushing that it's a period of time of experimentation. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker  8:57

Well, it's interesting, because do you read any of the boundary stuff by Henry Cloud? Yes. So I get his emails all the time. And for a long time I was I used it more in just general relationships. But now a lot of the stuff is actually applying to kids. And then just, and it probably always has, maybe I just wasn't ready to, like receive it that way. But just about how you can't get them to do X, Y, or Z, you can only say what you will do and what you won't do as a result like, so. I can't say you have to stop talking to me like that you just do. If you continue to talk to me like that I'm gonna leave the room and lock the door or whatever it is. But I've been I've been appreciating the messages in my parenting because it's just, you can't pick them up and like, put them

Unknown Speaker  9:44

yeah, there is no, we don't have the physical dominance. And if it's boys oftentimes, at that point, they're larger than us.

Unknown Speaker  9:54

Yeah. And not that the physical dominance ever really was useful anyway, but it's almost like you kind of need to A new bag of tricks with all of these changes that are occurring with the cat.

Unknown Speaker  10:04

But at least like when a child is to, and they're wildly unregulated, you can place them in a crib and say it's time to nap. Right? So we do have a certain amount of leverage in that way. And all of that is gone in adolescence and lots of other great things surface, right. But the thing, the really interesting thing that I started discovering, when I was researching this is that, you know, this generation of teenagers, the research shows that actually, they are way, quote, better behaved than our generation was, okay, they are postponing sex longer than us, granted, the dynamics have changed, and the boundaries around kind of those stereotypes, right, and we can get into that specifically later, but they are delaying sex for longer periods of time. They are smoking less cigarettes, some of that's ameliorated because the e cigarette issue and vaping has increased, but traditional cigarette smoking has been gone down significantly, they are having less sex, when they have it, they are binge drinking far less than our generation was. So there's a lot of hope in there. And there's, you know, they're their own generation. So they are shaped by us. And in reaction to us and in in and in response to tech. So you know, that, that research is really interesting, because it makes you think about like, Okay, so what's influencing that for sure, there's generational things, but also Tech is a big part of it, it turns out that some of the reason that they're doing less of that is that their lives are taking place more and more, and their relationships through tak. Right. So they're hanging out less together, but they have more constant connection via the devices. And so it's really just a period of it's a stretch of development, where you really, I think is, it's fascinating to observe how they are being shaped by their environment right now. Right? Yes, Harvard, you know, online bullying is a real thing that parents have to navigate. The online relationship is a really ripe space around the time of latency age, and late latencies, of sixth and seventh grade, leading into actual full blown teenage years, where they're exposed through the, through tech to pornography. So there are a lot of pitfalls. But this does seem to be a generation of children that are making their own mark on these generational trends, and they have a lot to be proud of. you're navigating it, there's a lot of stuff they're doing well,

Unknown Speaker  13:24

somebody made the point to me too, that for so long. Without the kind of technology we have now adults were trying to decide what teenagers wanted. So you know, companies, businesses, and now the teenagers have it's so much more in their own hands, to be these like influencers and really say, this is actually what we want, instead of having, you know, all the people in the conference room deciding what they're going to pitch as the next thing. And so it's almost like taking on, but I guess that's true for us as adults to where we're getting more access to things through technology. I feel like

Unknown Speaker  14:01

the core role is removed, you know, it's sort of like we're being able even like through social media and stuff, you're able now to interact with people that you used to just look at magazines about or like, you know, we had like, we could put our own mark on something by making like a mixtape. They just have so many more vehicles right through which to express that and their animals know the, the adolescent. sapien is in a huge period of transition. Huge. Mo emotionally psychologically neuro biologically, cognitively interpersonally sexually, there isn't a single anchor that's totally solid. So you can understand why it feels so overwhelming to them. And it because it's very intense.

Unknown Speaker  14:58

It's intense, and it's But can you talk more about just what is going on in the brain? When we're seeing these these, this sort of erratic behavior? What can we use as a visual as as parents to sort of remind ourselves, okay, this, they're not functioning on a full tank of gas here, you know, and not in a critical way, just in a way of like, just be aware, there's certain things happening here and take that into consideration.

Unknown Speaker  15:29

Totally. And so yeah, there tank of gas, what what we generally see, and there's large, you know, it's a spectrum of behavior and adolescent experiences on this continuum. But generally, the way I would try to get parents to think about it is that your child's brain is mature insight in terms of the size, it's going to be like the physical size. But the brain measures maturity, at this level called we call it connectivity, or integration. And their brain isn't nearly mature enough there. There aren't even regions that are communicating with each other in any robust way at this air at this period of time. And one of the areas that's most impacted is emotional regulation, frustration, tolerance, problem solving, sequencing, this is why they make stupid mistakes, things as an adult you think, how did you not see that coming?

Unknown Speaker  16:32

Right? Right. And there's they're almost laughable. Like, it's just they are laughable? Uh huh.

Unknown Speaker  16:37

Well, it's especially laughable when they think they're fooling you. Right? Like, no, no, I'm, like, fully connected up here, right? Yeah, it is. But this is, you know, their brain isn't. It's not the fully integrated connected network of systems that it will be, by the time they're say, just to cover both genders, 26, then you think about that, you have pretty much all the connections you're going to have at that, I mean, you can always build new ones, the brain is incredibly plastic, it's incredibly malleable. But by the time you're 2526 27, you're going to start to have a whole different set of neurologic capacities that you just didn't even when your tank was full. As an adolescent, let's say you were working, you were the type of adolescent, I remember, one time we talked your oldest born, so they can tend to be highly regulated. So a lot of times, you'll see in families that the firstborn sort of follows rules, they have pretty good impulse control, they don't really rock the boat, right? They they are very reasonable, even that child during adolescence isn't capable of the things we wish they were capable of. Because it would make our life easier. And it would assure us that we can get them through this stage of development, without any major catastrophes that could thwart their life in a significant way. That's our fears, right? It's like, we don't mind occasional, like, small mistakes, but it's the big ones that we really keep us up at night. And they're just not there. They don't even have the brain development. For that that level of connectivity and integration develops over the next decade.

Unknown Speaker  18:35

And what's so interesting is I think back on my big mistakes, and are just big chunks of wrong, but I say wrong direction. But those are the times when we end up I feel like learning the most and the stuff that I mean, I'm sure in your work, all the stuff, you've gone through the things I've gone through, help you put those pieces together for the future. But it's just miserable as a parent, to watch your child go through any kind of suffering or any kind of challenges, but that's what's gonna get them to be the awesome adults we want them to be. It's just, it's almost like, like you were saying before with the kids trying to bypass certain parts of development. As parents, it's almost like we want to bypass that stage of development to do you know what I mean? And somehow, like, if I could just read the right book, or listen to the right podcast, I will avoid the I mean, I put myself in this category. If I can educate myself in all the ways I will get to the end. Just be like, Wow, I nailed that. That was yeah, just read the book. I read

Unknown Speaker  19:37

the landing. Exactly. Yeah, totally. I mean, this really goes back to that kind of this age old but sage wisdom, and there's increasingly like, just really cool people doing this work now. Dr. Hate is one of them. Jonathan Haidt, I believe is his first name. But there's a bunch of people doing this. This kind kind of work really kind of emphasizing like, we can't rescue our kids, we really can't, we have to let them suffer, we have to let them feel pain, we have to let them make mistakes. And it doesn't mean we're permissive, right. I mean, if they're doing things that are very unsafe their life and they need tighter and stricter boundaries, parents have to respond accordingly. But usually, there's a lot of steps up until that point where you can be there for them, and you can love them, and you can support them, and you can even try to guide them. But ultimately, they have to bump up against boundaries in order to know where it is, what's their range, they're comfortable orbiting in everybody's range

Unknown Speaker  20:57

is different, right? You look at different adults who are like, Oh, that's fine. And I would be horrified. I mean, not just because it's so uncomfortable for me to live in that kind of, you know,

Unknown Speaker  21:08

statement, it's not about the other person, you're saying about your own temperament

Unknown Speaker  21:12

Exactly. Like I would not be able to sleep at night, if those are choices I was making. But some people that's the only way they feel alive, you know, is by kind of being a little bit more risk taking. And it might be tough, because we might have children who are in a different order than we are. And now if you have

Unknown Speaker  21:29

more than one like you do, it's very likely you will if you just play the odds, right? And yeah, everybody comes to the world sort of with a kind of a bit of a temperament. And then the environment really works and interacts with you end shapes you. And that's how we develop our kind of appetite for risks, and our capacity for tolerating, feeling out of control and all these things. And then you'll see that played out and people's style of risk taking, right so yeah, I mean, I'm sure I'm gonna sift I'm sure that my parents felt like they had at least one or two of us, that took them to their outer edge of comfort in terms of mischief, and wrath general rascal making,

Unknown Speaker  22:21

right. And of course, all of your siblings know who those people are just to get to that. Renee, remain nameless? Yes, it is. It's really, the thing I've been trying to tell myself to is, so whenever there's a little snafu in terms of, oh, I wish you hadn't done that, or this issue comes up that we need to have a real conversation about, and again, my child is younger, but I keep saying, Well, I'd rather have him learn this now, and have this conversation versus when he's like, 20. You know, like, learn this now. Because now's the time to sort of figure this out. But I would think that even you know, I'd rather have them learn when they're 17. Like, if they haven't learned it, let's learn it when you're 17 and not 27. Like, whatever the issue comes up, it's clear that you haven't learned it. And let's learn it now. You know, and we'd say with us, I feel like sometimes I'm always pointing the finger at the kids, the kids, like we're still learning are things like okay, Megan, learn it now, not when you're 57 learn it now.

Unknown Speaker  23:24

And everything that we're new at the time that it's new, right, like, I've never been a mother to an 11 year old. So I'm new with 11. And he's new at being 11. And we're just trying to sort of CO figure that out. Together, but you know, there are there are things that help. So, you know, for example, this is something that's sounds easier than it is but for adolescents, sleep is critical. It's the whole movement with some schools that are opening now, later in the morning in high schools, you know, they have like two tracks that one can start early, the other can start later. And I think I defined later, I think I've seen some schools up in Northern California that open as late as 930 for adolescents is to adjust for this new research coming out about brain development, adolescent brain development and sleep. So nine hours is the minimum that's suggested. And it does really make a difference. It can't happen all the time. We're not aiming to try to make the pursuit of something helpful, in this case, sleep, a neurotic endeavor that then teaches our children to be rigid and neurotic, right? We want to mirror being very fluid, but like more nights than not, if they can get nine hours of sleep. And there's you know, I don't want to bore the audience, too deep into why but there's there's real To killer reasons why. And one of the things that seems to happen in these last kind of three hours of sleep, and it happens, especially for adolescents is you fall into this realm of sleep, where it's very deep. And you have something called sleep spindles in the course of this, and during sleep spindles, it turns out that spindles are when the brain is doing a couple of critical things. One is, it's it's working on your emotional development and your psychological development during those times. It's repairing and working on that regions of the brain. So the easy way to say it is it's when you're sort of sight you're, you are psychologically developing while you sleep.

Unknown Speaker  25:52

My husband just got home Hold on one second, okay. Anyhow, okay, there we go. Okay. We can edit that out. Yes, yes. Yes. Okay.

Unknown Speaker  26:03

Yes. So the, there's all this emotional development that's happening while they sleep. And then the two other things and they they sort of are opposite sides of the same coin. One is that adolescents are consolidating what they have learned. So learning consolidation is happening, and the brain is preparing to learn more. And so you can see when the this when sleep is interrupted, and specifically morning sleep, those last three hours of sleep really, okay, you can see why, then they're tired in school, their memories, not as good, their focus isn't as good, they're even more moody than usual. All makes perfect sense. So sleep, this whole catchphrase of sleep hygiene is really important. And that always dovetails with a conversation about tech. Right? So every family's got to figure it out for themselves. But there's got it, there's got to be boundaries around tech and can't think that the same brain that has this immature, it's called the prefrontal cortex, that's where the I've referenced it earlier, the impulse control, frustration, tolerance, sequencing, those kinds of behaviors, that's where that happens. It's in the front of our brain. And we can't expect that a brain that's operating like that, will then miraculously tell itself to go to bed and stop talking on the telephone. So those are incongruent requests, you're asking a cat to bark. So we have to be the person that does it for them, right. And we have to do it consistently, even when they don't want us to, which if they're a typical adolescent will be always because they have an intense drive to be close to their peer group. Because that too, they're starting to, in a very unconscious loose way. They're starting to realize my future is with is outside this family, because I eventually am going to be my own human living, right. So that's the chair.

Unknown Speaker  28:19

No, no, I just started incorrect, actually. They just started telling my son, I was like, Well, you know, you're not going to be going to college. I'm gonna have you live in my basement. And that's just gonna be how it's gonna be. That's just and no offense to people who live in the basement, but like, you know, not going to be allowed to

Unknown Speaker  28:42

  1. So Right. And the basement reference for anybody that's getting their knickers in a knot is just because it's a good joke. Okay. Yes,

Unknown Speaker  28:50

yes. Your child is living in the basement. It's a hard time economically, it makes sense. You know, it's all good.

Unknown Speaker  28:55

Exactly. Yeah, my mom used to say to me, you can have a perfectly normal life up until you decide to move out and move away from me. Yes. And so that same sentiment, so I have real affection for that. But yeah, I mean, that's essentially the pole that they're feeling inside themselves. And so it is, it's such a, it's such a understandable drive that wanting to be connected to their friends, is now the next most important thing, because that's where they see they're headed, right? They're a blink away from college. And after that, we really do look at them as like Okay, time for you to now go functional on your own even though like a semester ago, I was paying your tuition and you had like a shared credit card with us, right? These aren't like smooth transitions often. So yeah, I mean, sleep hygiene is critical and paired with that is really looking at your how well are the tech boundaries working for your family. And if it's anything like my family, I have glimmers of nailing it. And then long stretches of time where I think this animal has taken over our lives.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

In this episode, we cover:

  • What to expect of a typical teen brain
  • What to anticipate parenting a teen
  • Key elements to helping a teen brain thrive
  • How to bear witness to the gifts and limitations of a teen brain
  • Ways to cultivate self-compassion as a parent and compassion for our kids

Learn more about Dr. Sarah Sarkis

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