At the recent lecture at the high school on stress and the teen brain, the speaker reviewed research that points to a heightened “fight or flight” response in teens and the effect this has on decision making. What should I do differently as a parent to account for this apparently natural part of my son’s personality?
In the presentation on “Toxic Stress and the Pressures to Succeed,” Dr. Laura Kastner was speaking about the concept of the “Hijacked Amygdala.” The amygdala is a small organ in the part of the brain that handles emotions. The amygdala helps us deal with threats, either perceived or real, by creating responses based on quick releases of adrenalin that have been helpful evolutionarily: fight, flight or freeze.
In adolescence, feelings of excitement or arousal happen more in the amygdala, not as much in parts of the brain used for measured thought and reasoning such as the prefrontal cortex. So when a teen is confronted by some stimulus that an adult might otherwise ignore or reason away, teens can display an instantaneous and exaggerated emotional response. This is related to the difficulty some teens have tempering their response to strong desires, peer pressure, risks, threats and arousal.
As parents we have all had moments when one of our children does something that leaves us thinking (or yelling) ‘what were you thinking?!’ In truth, they really weren’t thinking. Their amygdala hijacked their response.
This is evident when you consider how many teens respond to stimulating situations: doing skateboard tricks without the helmet seemingly glued to their heads in elementary school; racing cars on an empty road; stealing something to impress a peer; competitive drinking games that make them sick; or not thinking to use protection when sexually active. Fortunately this type of hijacking wanes as growth slows, hormones even out, and the prefrontal cortex finishes developing by the mid-twenties.
The flip side is that teens bring great energy to so many things that adult brains might not get excited about. Enjoy and honor this part of your teen. At the same time, appeal to their prefrontal cortex—no matter how undeveloped. Talk about safety and decision making. When they make a dumb decision, provide swift and appropriate consequences and then be on their side about working amends.
Take time outs yourself, when needed. Amygdala hijacking can seem more intentional than it really is. Model slowing down, and help them reflect on their actions to see connections between actions and consequences. This process, over and over, is part of helping the brain increase connections in the parts of the brain that develop the “smarts” that it sometimes seems our teen abandon on purpose.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org