Teenage brain development - Let's talk about puberty
If you could peer inside your brain you’d be faced with at a tricky rewiring that kind of looks like a bowl of spaghetti. At any point between the ages of 11 and 27 (yep!) there are lots of mental and psychological changes happening in there during puberty.
These often spark emotional changes that are hard to handle and behaviour you can’t seem to control. We look at these changes and talk about ways you can keep your head up through the rough and the smooth.
We’ve looked at how your body can change during puberty and seen how hormones play a big part in how you look and feel. But what about your brain?
Well, it’s going through rapid changes. In fact, the last time it did something so spectacular was when you were inside your mum’s womb.
What’s wrong with me?
While it can be lonely or overwhelming when your feelings are so unpredictable, you’re just trying to deal with a truckload of new emotions. The bits of your teenage brain that should be able to regulate your moods and behaviour are still being formed.
The frontal lobes – which control impulse, the way you react to certain situations and the way you organize your life – are the last to be rewired for adulthood. So, if you feel like you can’t prioritise the things that need doing, or notice that things which really hurt or annoyed you at the time no longer seem like a big deal, it’s no surprise. You’ve got so much going on!
Certain everyday situations – like not being able to find your favourite jeans, or a friend not messaging you back – could make you cry out in frustration. Small things can very quickly turn into big deals when your brain’s not able to step in and help you calm down.
Don’t beat yourself up, but do find things that help take the edge off. That might be taking a walk outside, calling a friend, hurling cuddly toys across your room – or reaching for a meditation app.
Anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings
You’re probably experiencing some feelings for the first time. And that can be scary. Take feeling anxious. The thing that might give you butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, or be the reason you bite your fingernails.
You could know what’s causing you to feel a certain way (exams? problems with a friend?). But sometimes it might not be so easy to work out. Feelings are sneaky things - they can creep up on you for no particular reason, interfere with your sleep, or make it hard to concentrate.
Learn what might be causing you to feel a certain way by keeping a diary. If you’re not that organised, scribble notes on your phone to spot patterns in behaviour. When you’re able to recognise certain feelings early on, it’ll be easier to stop them becoming unmanageable. In time, you’ll find the things that help you to ride the feelings out. And remember – sharing your anxieties with someone else might help to lighten the load too.
Your feelings don’t define you.
Just because you’ve felt blue for a few days, doesn’t mean you’ll always be sad. Or just because you’ve been shouting a lot recently, doesn’t mean you’ll always be angry.
When you feel bad about how you’ve behaved, don’t be too hard on yourself. Looking forward and learning from the mistake is better than kicking yourself on repeat. Dwelling on the past will never make something ‘unhappen’. So, say sorry if you need to, and move on. Remember, even the most sensible people on earth say things they don’t mean, or make some pretty unwise decisions from time to time. It’s human. And particularly during puberty, it’s common.
Me, myself and I
Self-esteem. Self-confidence. Self-acceptance. These are all things we’re told we have to work on if we want to be happy. But just because we’re told to do something, doesn’t mean it’s always easy to do.
Our confidence can take a bashing during puberty. When our brain changes, the feelings that follow can make it hard to work out who we are, what we’re good at, and how we should behave.
Sometimes we judge ourselves in a far less kind way than we would a friend. Why not see yourself as a friend, someone who deserves encouragement and respect? Before that voice in your head takes over and says, “I’m not good enough,” ask yourself whether you’d say or think the same about someone you love.
Troubles tend to weigh us down around our shoulders and in our mind, so when you’re feeling overwhelmed it’s helpful to imagine your problems at your feet – not by your head. When you stand up you’ll feel empowered by how much bigger you are than your worries.
Why aren’t I happy with my reflection?
Sometimes it can feel like we went to bed as one person and woke up as somebody else.
The way we feel about our bodies can impact on the way we feel in general. If you’re not feeling great about how you look, it might be because you’ve looked at other people, and your brain’s telling you that you don’t measure up.
But being attractive isn’t all about the way we look. We’re drawn to people (and they’re drawn to us) because of all sorts of things, from their sense of humour to the way they smell to their unique style – there’s a zillion things that a selfie can’t capture.
Rather than comparing yourself to others, or looking at what you don’t like, surprise yourself by picking out the things you’re proud of: what’s your favourite feature? What makes you unique? Our bodies are incredible triumphs of engineering. Focus on what your body can do, rather than how it looks.
You might have fast feet or fingers – perfect for sport, dancing, playing instruments or gaming. You might have hawk eyes that notice every little detail in someone’s outfit, or the chemistry between two people on a reality TV show. Maybe your ears are super sharp so you pick up all the emotion in someone’s voice. Or you might have lungs of steel that keep you going through cross-country in the winter, or swimming length after length.
Whatever it is, your body’s there to help you do the things you love. Cut it some slack from time to time!
Don’t know how you’re feeling, or why? It takes practice.
Lonely, angry, happy, sad? During puberty, it’s often difficult to pinpoint your emotions. But if you practice naming them, you’ll get quicker at identifying them.
Imagine you’re feeling blue. You don’t know why. You eat some biscuits, but that doesn’t make the feeling go away. So you hide in your bedroom. Which actually makes you even more miserable and alone.
Now imagine that instead of going to your bedroom, you accept that you’re feeling sad and you don’t know why. You choose to share how you’re feeling with someone close to you, like your mum or dad. And they help you pinpoint something that may help that emotion feel more bearable, or they give you a squeeze and you feel less alone. Better, huh?
Keep on talking
Once you get into the practice of naming your emotions, try to keep up the talk. Share how you’re feeling, even if it’s hard to open your mouth at first. Talking lets others know how you’re doing, so they will be better at supporting you. Write your feelings in a diary, a letter or put them in a song or poem. And doodles or drawings are a great way of expressing how you’re feeling, if talking seems like too big a hurdle to jump right now.
If you’re feeling sad all the time, or experiencing acute anxiety or depression, you may require specific help over a longer period of time. As with anything that lives in your head (but affects every area of your life), it’ll take courage to tell someone what’s happening for you.
But if you’re stuck in a rut for what seems like forever talking to somebody you really trust is the first step to getting the support you need.