THE teenage years, according to Dr Rose Williams, a drama therapist and expert in adolescent neuroscience, are probably the time when it feels most, to a parent, as if the brain inside your child’s head is nothing like your own. All that risk-taking, acting-out and angst over peer approval. It can sometimes seem as if your child has gone slightly bonkers when they are just going through the process of normal teen development. Hence, if you’ve got a teenager in your life, it helps to know some of the neuroscience of what is going on inside the teenage brain – so that you can know when to seek help and when to roll with it, or change your parenting style.

Williams runs seminars and masterclasses on this subject, both which take place this Friday as part of the Scottish Mental Health Art and Film festival. She has titled the session Mad, Bad or Sad, since these all too often are the kind of labels foisted on adolescents. “When children get into their high school years there tends to be a kind of ratcheting up of expectations,” she says, “and that’s when people are more likely to grasp onto these social categories as a way to label what’s happening to the young person, instead of seeing them as somebody that’s still developing.”

Adolescence, says Williams, is both a massive developmental stage and a complicated phase of life. “Anyone who is parent to a teenager will absolutely tell you that,” she says. However, all too often people will see adolescents as mini adults when, in fact, they are “still developing and have got a whole other set of chemical dilemmas that are completely different”.

The chemistry of adolescence is more complex and less regulated than that of an adult. But also, in the mix, is the very fact that some parts of the brain are still in the process of development. This is a phase, in fact, where the grey matter starts to thin – pruning of the nerves happens – and new neural connections are made. Williams makes an analogy with a tree, which grows new branches and leaves, but also sees others dropping out. Among those things that temporarily drop out, she says are “risk and safety awareness”.

Hard as it may be for some to remember, this happened to all of us. It was part of our journey to becoming an adult. For those who have forgotten, here’s a guide, based around some of current neuroscientific research and therapeutic thinking to how to understand, cope with and survive life with a teenager.

Taking risks is what they do

Its long been known that impulsivity increases in adolescence. Scientists see it as a by-product of the way the brain develops, and the fact that the part of the brain responsible for self-control, the pre-frontal cortex, is the last to complete development. They also see impulsivity as performing an important evolutionary function – the young need to take risks and learn from them. “Adolescence,” says Williams, “is a period where you need to take risks in order to grow and develop. You have to have your inhibiting factors drop down a bit in order to take the risks.” Of course, she observes, this can often be shocking for the rest of the family. “The teenager might be doing the crazy acting out and everyone’s wondering what the hell happened to them.”

They’re just being curious.

According to Dan Romer of University of Pennsylvania, it’s not recklessness that peaks in adolescence but an interest in exploration and novelty seeking. “Adolescents,” he has written, “are by necessity engaged in exploring essential questions about themselves – who they are, what skills they have and who among their peers is worth socialising with.”

Sense comes last

The part of the brain where self-control, time management and organisation skills reside is the last to complete development. In fact, it isn’t completed in terms of full growth, or myelination (the insulating of nerves) until the age of 25. “If I were to take an adult brain out of one head and a teenage brain out of another,” says Williams, “and put them next to each other, the key difference is in the pre-frontal cortex. That’s still growing. That’s the front bit that helps you learn and helps you coordinate and manage time. It helps you do things like set up a play date and remember when it’s supposed to be on. That hasn’t come to its full powers and still has a few centimetres to add.”

Selfishness is par for the course

Self-obsession and preoccupation with the thoughts of their peers is normal and good in teens. “They’ve got a set of chemistry," says Williams, "that allows them to be self-insightful and reflective of others and that’s not totally new, but it comes on in a whole different way in adolescence. That thing about them being so overly focused on what peers might think or what’s going on in other people’s minds is also a sign that the actual necessary developmental tools are in place.”

Social media isn’t all bad

As Williams points out it can be a “power for good or evil...It’s just a whole other area where young people either get the benefit of experiences they can learn and draw from, but also the disbenefit of having a lot of those experiences being unregulated by adults or by other people.”

You are a safety blanket

The job of a parent can probably be summed up in a paragraph. “You are there," says Williams, "to support your child to do safe experiments - to go out into the world, to come back again, process what happened, hopefully with your help. Look at how you are best set up to keep doing that over and over and over and over again while that learning process goes on."

Repeat cycle

You may have to say things hundreds of times but each time you say it, remember that there is some small pathway being laid down in the brain. “Every single time those small connections get made that’s a neural pathway growing," Williams says. "Be reassured that each one of those times you’ve had the same maddening conversation something’s been built up. Something is happening.


Boundaries are not just important, they’re an opportunity. Williams believes that when a teenager doesn’t accept a rule or boundary – say that they have to be in by a particular time at night - this is an opportunity for “trade and negotiation”. “Young people need to learn how to work out, hopefully with you, what a safe boundary is. So if they’re not listening to the ones you’re giving, your sense of what’s safe, then finding out what theirs is, is really important. Then you can do negotiation and trading off, and that gives them that trade and negotiation skill set.”

The silent treatment

Relationships are about more than talking with each other. As Williams put it: “There’s a lot of pressure for young people to put into words stuff that even adults couldn’t. That’s an enormous amount of pressure.” If words don’t work, she suggests, you can just find other ways of spending time in each other’s presence, or of going out and doing things together. “Don’t be put off by the fact that they don’t want to talk about things. It’s not because they don’t want to relate to you. 98 percent of the time we’re busy relating to each other without saying a thing. I think the emphasis on words can put everyone off – including parents.”

I hate you!

Just because they say they hate you doesn’t mean they do. “I would say one of the really fatal mistakes is thinking your kid hates you just because they say they do," says Williams. Young people, she says, are "going to say and do some truly horrific things, and that does not mean that they are not safe, well and good. It certainly doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with your relationship. And it 100% doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them. It’s just that that phase will bring out all kinds of stuff and those curve balls are just going to keep getting served up.”

Love is the drug

Your love is one of the best drugs. Don’t give up on it. “With adolescents,” Williams says, “it’s so easy to get caught up in worrying about the risk and safety elements, and hard to remember how much love they are looking for in the world. Adolescence is a particularly important period for kids to know that they're loved and cared for - but that's often the thing that will disappear first and re-emerge last.” That is because, as she acknowledges, “It can be difficult to love a teenager.”

When to seek help

There are times, however, when just knowing a bit of neuroscience isn’t going to be enough to help a teenager who is depressed, self-harming, having panic attacks or showing signs of an eating disorder. How do you know when to seek out professional help? Dr Rose Williams advises that since some symptoms can simply be aspects of normal teen-hood, carers should consider firstly how significantly different the behaviours are from normal, and also how long episodes have persisted. Things to watch out for, she says, are:

1 Significant mood changes, including sadness, depression, withdrawal, irritability or rages

2. Intense feelings with little ability to manage the feelings, including anxiety, fear and panic symptoms

3 Behaviour changes including aggressiveness, dangerous behaviour, and homicidal thoughts or changes in appearance, friends, interests

4 Physical harm including self-harm and suicidal thoughts/attempts

5 Substance abuse

6 Lack of self-care including, lack of cleanliness, not eat or over eating, sleep disturbances, weight changes, pays little attention to physical health, doesn’t care about homework

7 Change in functioning including inability to concentrate, easily irritated/frustrated, gets into fights/arguments, unable to get along with others, cannot complete projects/work

There are many resources on the web that can help guide you as to what kind of help your teen may need. The Scottish Association For Mental Health website,, offers a guide to help parents. A good site to look at if a teen you know appears to be self-harming is, run by the Self-Injury Guidance & Network Support.

If you’re worried that someone is having suicidal thoughts, which are reactive to a situation, then either a visit to their GP, or a call to NHS 111 is a good first place to start. If the thoughts seem recurrent, severe, and there’s a serious worry they will act on them, then contact the Samaritans, 116 123 . They also have help for parents on their webpage One call every thirty minutes to ChildLine is from a young person experiencing suicidal thoughts

The Mad, Bad or Sad masterclass and seminar, on May 18, is part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film festival which is on till May 27