Teenagers and Counselling
Counselling can be a chance to open up what is going on for a teenager, to gain self-understanding, and to develop coping strategies to make it through tough times. Some of the issues that can arise are:
- Understanding how the teenage brain is different to the adult brain (more about this below)
- Communication – between teenager and parent, siblings, friends, other adults
- How to manage emotions such as anxiety, panic attacks, anger or low mood
- School and study
- Peer pressure, friendships, relationships, sexuality
- Addictions and eating disorders
- Self harming and suicidal thoughts
What does science tell us about teenage brains?
Powerful new brain imaging techniques has has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes and rapid cognitive (brain) development taking place during the teenage years. In key ways, the brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s. In fact the behaviour that we call “teenage” can actually last until a person is 25 years old.
The cognitive development during adolescence allows the individual to think and reason in a much wider perspective than the way a child would. The thoughts, ideas and concepts developed at this period of life greatly influence their future lives, playing a major role in character and personality formation. Different parts of the brain mature at different rates and the parts responsible for controlling impulses, assessing risk and planning ahead (including focussing on Leaving Cert results!) are among the last to mature.
The teenage brain becomes more interconnected and gains processing power and they start to have the computational and decision-making skills of an adult – but only if they are given enough time and access to information. In the heat of the moment, their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) than the more rational prefrontal cortex. That’s why teenagers can have such a struggle to handle their often overpowering emotions.
Ironically although adolescents are at the lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, it’s actually a hazardous age. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Teenagers are prone to indulge in risky behaviours – they may get into fights easily or jump into unsafe water. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages. When teens drink they tend to drink larger quantities than adults and there is evidence to suggest that the adolescent brain responds to alcohol differently to the adult brain, perhaps helping to explain the elevated risk of binge drinking in youth. It appears that adolescents need higher doses of risk to feel the same amount of “rush” that adults do.
Why the mood swings?
We can now see that hormone systems involved in the brain’s response to stress are also changing during the teens. These stress hormones can have complex effects on the brain, and as a result, behaviour. The amygdala which is part of the brain’s limbic system, is thought to connect sensory information to emotional responses. Its development, along with hormonal changes, may give rise to newly intense experiences of rage, fear, aggression (including toward oneself), excitement and sexual attraction. Over the course of adolescence, the limbic system comes under greater control of the prefrontal cortex, the area just behind the forehead, which is associated with planning, impulse control and higher order thought. When this happens, adolescents gain some equilibrium and have an easier time interpreting others. But until then, teens often misread parents, teachers and other adults in their lives. And vice versa.
Why the late nights and long lie-ins?
It seems to be a matter of biology not attitude. Brain-based changes mean that the adolescent body does not begin to feel sleepy until about 10:45 p.m when the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin begins. It continues until about 8 a.m. This means that teenagers are unable to fall asleep until melatonin secretion begins and they are also not able to awaken until the melatonin secretion stops.
Along with the obvious effects of sleep deprivation, such as fatigue and difficulty maintaining attention, inadequate sleep is a powerful contributor to irritability and depression. Studies have found that sleep deprivation can increase impulsive behaviour – adequate sleep is central to physical and emotional health.
I work with teenagers aged 16 and over. I always make sure that I also work with their parents/caregivers to give the young person an extra level of support. This may involve meeting the parent separately, it usually involves seeing the teenager separately, with the assurance that anything that they tell me is confidential (unless there is a serious safety issue.)
Book a counselling session today!