Understanding the Teenage Brain and Parenting with ADHD
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Recommendations by a Psychologist for the teenage brain 

Guest post by Dr. Caroline Buzanko, Licensed Psychologist & Clinical Director of Koru Family Psychology

Parenting Recommendations by a Psychologist Image

Adolescence is a challenging period of development. Our teens face so many demands socially, academically, emotionally, and physically. Teens with ADHD have additional challenges. Their symptoms are worsened by puberty (including rebellion and risk-taking behaviours) and can change the efficacy of medications, the demands they face tax their brain power substantially, and they experience marked spikes in emotional turmoil. 

Once puberty hits, hormones triggers the physical growth we see.  What we might not realize is the rapid growth and development of their brain that is also occurring. Indeed, the brain is at its most powerful in the teen years as it strengthens the neural pathways. We see a major strengthening and streamlining in their frontal cortex, which is important for regulating their emotions and behaviours. Their brain is at its peak efficiency and teens have an amplified capacity to learn quickly. However, the brain is still underdeveloped and does not work the same way as adults.  

So, what exactly is happening in the teenage brain? There is an overabundance of gray matter, which is the basic building block of the brain. However, there is an undersupply of white matter, which is responsible for moving information from one part of the brain to the other. Therefore, it’s like having an incredibly fast racecar brain with no idea of where it’s going.  

To make matters even more complicated the limbic system, which is responsible for reward seeking and is stimulated by friends and emotions, is developing earlier and faster than the frontal cortex. As a result, reward seeking behaviours overrides any rational thinking. Similarly, the peer context becomes paramount over right and wrong.    

Teens Image

Teens respond differently to the world compared to adults. Teens do not process risk and negative situations the same way and have a hard time knowing if their idea is a good one. Risky situations are not as obvious to them. They are more likely to engage in risky behaviours because they get wrapped up in the moment and cannot consider the risk.  

This is why the teenage years are a period of experimentation, impulsivity, and risk taking behaviours.  

With everything happening in the brain, we see a myriad of potential problems, including:  

  • Mood swings 
  • Irritability 
  • Impulsiveness 
  • Explosiveness 
  • Inability to focus 
  • Poor connection with adults 
  • Poor follow through 
  • Temptation for drugs and alcohol 
  • Risky behaviour  
  • Poor attention
  • Poor self-discipline 

When you add ADHD to the teenage brain, we see these challenges persist longer into adulthood than those without ADHD. This is because there is a delay in the ADHD brain development, meaning it takes their frontal cortex (and therefore their ability to self-regulate their emotions and behaviours and to make good decisions) longer to develop than typically developing teens.  

And, when the frontal cortex is delayed in developing, it makes it even harder for teens with ADHD to regulate their limbic system. Meaning increased emotionality, stress, instability, and risky behaviours.  

Implications and tips for parents with teens  

 Teens still need appropriate limits to help them make the right choices. Especially teens with ADHD. They have this jacked-up, incredibly fast, stimulus-seeking racecar of a brain with no brakes.  

Their brain is not fully able to make mature decisions in the moment.  

That is where adults need to come in and provide those brakes. Here are a few ideas to get you started:  

  • Quality time. The teenage brain is at its most powerful to learn. However, it is also at its  most vulnerable to learn the wrong things. Quality time with healthy adults is important to help teens learn the skills they need to be successful independent adults.   
  • Firm boundaries and expectations. Teens have trouble self-regulating and so we cannot just hope that they will make good decisions with friends, while driving, or on social media. We need to be explicit with our expectations and review them. Teens benefit from knowing what is happening in their brain and why they need to have firm boundaries during this time. 
  • Control. However, teens also need to feel like they have control. Giving them as much opportunity to make important decisions in their life whenever possible is critical for their development. 
  • Experimentation. With everything happening in the teenage brain, the need to experiment is inherent in their development. Expect and allow for them to experiment. Focus on the important things. I would much rather my children try new activities, new looks, or new hairstyles than other things they could get themselves into. Allow for these risk-taking opportunities within reason.  
  • Substances are non-negotiable. Do not allow them to experiment with tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. The teenage  brain is far more sensitive to these substances than adults. Using any of these substances can cause damage to their brain, create learning and memory problems, contribute to depression and anxiety, and lead to dependency. ADHD brains are even more susceptible to these negative effects, along with addiction.   
  • Focus on rewards. Teen brains respond to rewards rather than risk or punishment. Limit punishments and focus on rewards!  
  • Promote a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough physical activity and having a healthy diet are key for teen brain development. This is also a vital time to instill healthy habits for adulthood. It is definitely a lot harder to rewire the brain to promote a healthy lifestyle in adulthood. 
  • Sleep! The teenage brain is quite powerful and needs extra rest. Insufficient sleep makes all the executive functioning skills even weaker than they already are, making it even harder to self-regulate.   

Finally, the most important skill for parenting an ADHD teenager – all parents even – is the art of listening. 

With listening, we want to avoid power struggles and instead focus on validating how our teens are feeling. Even if they are yelling at you, send an invitation to talk. If they don’t talk, that’s okay, give them space. Let them know that if they do want to talk you’ll be waiting for them somewhere (e.g., in the kitchen) when they’re ready.  

If they do talk, acknowledge their perspective. Even if you don’t agree. This is the key part about empathy and validation. It is not about agreeing with them – instead, the focus is on letting them know you understand how they are feeling. Therefore, we need to listen intently, with an open mind, and put ourselves in our kids’ shoes to see the situation through their eyes.  

To respond in a reflective, empathetic way, provide a brief summary of what they said or what you think they are trying to say. Doing this helps them process their experience. For example: 

 “That makes sense you are so frustrated when you feel I nag you all the time.”  

We also want to give them space to correct us if we are misinterpreting what they say. I will often ask them right after my reflection, “Did I get it?” And then, “Is there more?” 

Parent listening image

Here are a few key tips to communicate effectively with your teen: 

  • Ask open questions. Ask them how they feel, how we can help, and what they  see the next steps being 
  • By present. When listening, remain fully present. Being present is often more effective than anything we have to say. 
  • Seek to understand. The focus of listening is ensuring our teen feels heard and understood. We do not share any of our own thoughts, feelings, or agenda. This is not the time. 
  • Remain curious. How we talk is important too. Whenever we talk at our kids, we create stress and disconnect. We also need to ensure we replace any negativity with curiosity. This is non-negotiable. If we want them to learn to express themselves effectively and to strengthen our relationship, we have to get rid of all negativity in our interactions with them.  
  • Stay calm. To be effective, we must remain calm ourselves. Do not escalate the situation. Expect your ADHD teen to overreact – their brain is still developing and they have a hard time coping the way we hope they will. It does not help if we respond by overreacting ourselves.  
  • Do not take it personally. Teens with ADHD get easily stuck in a huge awful knot of emotions that can be hard to disentangle. Coupled with impulsivity, they can say hurtful things they don’t really mean. 
  • Create equality.  Teens need to feel like they are respected. Showing respect and working collaboratively with them is essential to keep them engaged in the conversation. And to motivate them to listen to what we have to say when the time comes.  

Parenting an ADHD teenager can be a grueling job. However, by understanding the teenage brain and working towards being a strong co-regulator and collaborator, you can strengthen your relationship while promoting their resilience and independence.   

head shot of Doctor Caroline Buzanko

Dr. Caroline Buzanko is a licensed psychologist and clinical director of Koru Family Psychology. She has worked with children and their families for over 20 years, with a focus on maximizing connection, confidence, and resilience. She facilitates groups and workshops across North America to promote health and well-being among families and is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary.  For more information visit: http://drcarolinebuzanko.com/ 

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