• Leah Jewett

Brainstorming the teenage years

Updated: Nov 15, 2019



Brain power: (from left) authors Jane Gilmour, Bettina Hohnen and Tara Murphy (onscreen) with Valerie Lindsay

What was the riskiest thing you did in your teens? What person, place or thing did you fall in love with as a teenager? And do you mind if your anonymous answers are projected onto a screen for everyone to read? Taking audience participation to a new level, the 7 November 2019 book launch for The Incredible Teenage Brain: Everything You Need To Know To Unlock Your Teen’s Potential has invited guests to time-travel back to their own adolescence and do some self-interrogation.


With its case studies, action points and exercises on reflecting back on what didn’t work, The Incredible Teenage Brain gives parents the skills – based on neuroscience – to support young adolescents. It presents the teenage years as being an opportunity for parents, teachers and professionals working with teens to contribute positively to young people’s brain development and emerging identity.


Strengthening the parent-child relationship – one of the three core principles behind Outspoken Sex Ed – is vital, underscores co-author Bettina Hohnen. By providing a bedrock of being nurturing and protective, adults can make teenagers feel safe enough to go into a positive cycle of learning – a mental zone that involves doing something, then feeling a sense of achievement (“You’ve nailed it!”), then wanting to do it again. That cycle builds new circuits in the brain.


Being around teenagers, co-author Jane Gilmour explains, “you’re in the presence of a brain which is different from that of a child or an adult. We can’t use the same skills we used when our kids were younger – and we have to find those new skills pretty quickly. We have to up our game.”


The Incredible Teenage Brain coins the phrase “May the force be with you, Luke”, a seven-step action plan for being in the moment with a teen who’s emotional, that includes “May” representing a situation that maybe pushed your buttons and“force” representing your forcing yourself to wait while their emotions settle and rational thinking comes back.


“It’s the equivalent of counting to 10,” comments marketing-expert Valerie Lindsay, who’s chairing tonight’s discussion.


She goes on to say: “This book details scenarios you’ve seen in your own home. When I Google ‘teenagers’ the result is ‘testing boundaries’. The scientific and practical information in the book presents alleviates your fears of doing things wrong. Reading it made me reflect on how we tend to parent our children as our parents parented us. I’ll be using this book like TripAdvisor in researching my own teenage kids.”

Someone in the audience says that after reading The Incredible Teenage Brain she understood why her son experiences anxiety when he has trouble sleeping after having stayed up late at weekends: because he’s shifted his sleep cycle, a “social jet lag” confuses his body, making it harder for him to fall asleep at the usual time: “So then I could explain to him was why his brain was reacting in that way. For the first time his anxiety disappeared.”


Hohnen’s young-adult daughter tells the audience that, as a teenager, she was aware that her mother used neuroscientist tactics to deal with her adolescent moods and reactions, but that she had to admit – even in the moment – that those tactics worked. “It made me realise: ‘Oh, so that’s why I’m feeling like this!’”


Eventually peer groups – now accessible 24/7 via social media – become more influential than teenagers’ parents. But in terms of risk-taking, what parents think is still of paramount importance, declares Hohnen: “If you have a strong relationship, your teenager is more likely to hold you in their head when they are deciding something.”


“It’s buried, but there,” agrees Lindsay.


Gilmour adds: “That relationship will never be diluted. You are key in their life.”


The question remains: why are about 80 snow globes sitting on a table for book-launch guests to take home? Well, the relevance of snow globes to the teenage brain is spelled out in the pages of this thought-provoking book…



Some key takeaways for parents


Our social focus changes over time. Infants are oriented to their parents, but by adolescence the focus shifts to peers. At the same time, don’t forget that key adults will always have an important part to play

Teens need you more than ever, though you might have to re-think how to show your support. Think of being a co-pilot who guides them while ensuring that they are safe

Adolescents try out many identities while they figure out who they are. Teens are highly vulnerable during identity transitions, so adults need to take particular care at this time

Stress impacts on the brain’s capacity to learn. It’s true for mice and it’s true for teens

Experiencing smaller stresses means that teens will be able to manage major life stresses. It’s like an inoculation against major stress

The emotional brain is like a “switching station” for brain activity. If it judges a situation to be threatening, brain activity is directed to the lower brain for survival. If it judges it to be safe, it sends activity to the thinking part of the brain to explore and learn. How would a teen brain react to an angry adult?

Teenagers take more risks when they are with peers. They take fewer risks when keeping an attachment figure (like a parent) in mind

Gossiping teens are actually practising the rules of their social group – it’s a preparation for future community membership

Teens feel social exclusion more acutely than younger children or adults

The brain is most efficient in a social group and it’s particularly true for teens. Use this social super power in any and every learning context

Teens are getting ready to launch into their future. It is a period of separation which must happen. But don’t abandon them. They need your help to make it happen

Teen brains are under construction. Adults are the scaffolding while the masterpiece is being completed


What some reviews say

  • How do you handle your teenager wanting to spend more time with friends, taking risks, staying up late? Should you worry about the amount of time they spend on social media? Why don’t they go to bed at a reasonable time and why do they find it hard to get up in time for school? This book provides a deep understanding of everyday adolescent issues – Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience

  • Your child’s teen years can feel like a dark, hazardous path. Here’s the guide every parent wishes for, sending up flares of light to ease your way – Sheila Fitzgerald, mother of three young-adult daughters

  • It is possible to enable our children to navigate this key developmental time without our anxiety getting in the way – Professor Tanya Byron, consultant clinical psychologist

  • Bettina, Jane and Tara and offer a hopeful and positive way to look at adolescent behaviour, which has often been seen as negative. What I love the most about this book is that it is written with emotional insight and a great deal of compassion – Sarah Fortna, teacher and learning specialist


The Incredible Teenage Brain: Everything You Need To Know To Unlock Your Teen’s Potential by Bettina Hohnen, Jane Gilmour and Tara Murphy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £15.99)

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