In Advice for Carers

15 things foster carers need to know about the teenage brain

Being a foster carer means taking on many roles. On any given day you can be a parent, a friend, a teacher or even a counsellor for the young person who is in your care.

To be successful in any and all of these roles means knowing how to communicate effectively with your foster child, but that can be especially tricky when the young person is a teenager.

Whether you’ve cared for teenagers of your own or just remember being a teenager yourself, you’ll be familiar with moments of moodiness, overreaction and defiance. Some of this behaviour is essentially biological: the adolescent brain doesn’t work in the same way to the adult brain – it’s still developing, it’s changing and it’s flushed with hormones.

But when the young person in your care has experienced trauma, as many foster children have, it can be hard to know which reactions are just a teenager being a teenager and which are a reaction to trauma. It can also be hard to know how to help the young person grow, improve, and flourish.

That’s why Lika Family Fostering recently invited “the teenage brain woman”, Nicola Morgan, to Croydon in South London to talk to our foster carers and people interested in becoming foster carers about the teenage brain.

nicola morgan

Nicola Morgan spoke to foster carers about the teenage brain at a special event organised by Lika. Source: Nicola Morgan

Nicola has written several helpful books for teenagers on everything from body image to positivity and from handling stress to coping with their “online” life. The first of these was called Blame My Brain, focused on the teenage brain – so she was the perfect person to share her wisdom with our foster carers at one of our regular training days.

Based on Nicola’s talk, we’ve put together 15 things foster carers need to know about the teenage brains and behaviour…

(For more detailed advice, you can buy Nicola’s books here. And for more information about what it’s like fostering teenagers, ask our team here.)

1. Teenagers in foster care should learn about their brains

We spend a lot of time and effort teaching teenagers how to look after themselves so they can become independent.

But a lot of things teenagers are experiencing and the way they view the world are about what’s going on in their brains. They literally experience the world differently to adults. That’s not their fault; it’s just biology.

It’s never too early for teenagers to learn about their brain, so they can understand these changes and some of their feelings and behaviours.

This video from Nicola is a great place to start.

2. Everything we do changes our brain

This is true for adults as well as teenagers, but everything we do changes our brain. When we learn something new connections between neurons are made in our brain. When we do something a lot (when we practice or study) the corresponding area of our brain quite literally grows, with all these new connections.

So when you’re not good at something, or you find something hard, stick with it and you will definitely improve!

3. Keeping positive is incredibly important

Those changes in our brains happen with every single thing we do, whether that experience or knowledge is positive or negative. These changes to our brains can actually go on to affect how we think and feel later on. So every positive thought has a positive effect on the brain.

READ MORE: Joan’s experience as a foster carer of a teenager

4. Teenage turbulence is normal, temporary and positive

Adolescence is actually something many mammals go through, not just humans. Rats and monkeys display similar typically “teenage” behaviours (like taking risks, moving away from the family, being more aggressive, and having altered sleeping patterns) to teenage humans.

So it’s a biological change the young person is experiencing. Their bodies are programmed to do all this. It’s a stage of life and it doesn’t last forever, but it’s incredibly important: it’s getting your young person ready for independence.

Teenage turbulence is normal, temporary and positive

Risk-taking behaviour is a normal part of teenage development.Source: Pixabay

5. Achieving independence requires attachment

Nicola says achieving “separation” (that is, independence) can be more difficult for young people who have experienced trauma. Attachment problems can appear.

“In order to have the confidence to get out and be independent, ideally you need to have had a strong attachment to at least one adult,” Nicola said. “This can be a problem for fostered teens.”

If you and your young person are experiencing problems with attachment and separation, always talk to your supervising social worker. They will have advice and strategies that will help.

6. Teenagers are relying on their primal brain

There are many parts to the brain and they develop in stages. Our primal brain, the one that looks after “fight or flight”, is developed from an early age. Our prefrontal cortex — which we use for control, reason, prediction, impulse control, and temptation and reward — doesn’t finish developing until our late 20s.

That means teenagers are dealing with a pretty well-evolved primal brain but their more complex, thinking and controlling brain is still developing. This is why many (but not all) teenagers have problems with:

  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Self-control
  • Decision-making
  • Risk-taking
  • Peer pressure.
teenage smoking

Their stage of brain development and the need to fit in make teenagers more. Source: Pixabay

7. Teens often think you’re angry with them, even when you’re not

Empathy – the ability to understand what someone else may be feeling – uses the still developing prefrontal cortex and this skill is something many younger teenagers find difficult. One of the emotions teenagers most commonly misread is anger. Teenagers will quite often think you’re angry with them, even when you’re not.

“If you think someone is angry with you all the time, you’re going to be pretty upset about that, and that’s when fights occur,” Nicola said.

Talk to your supervising social worker about some techniques that will reassure your foster child you’re not angry with them, and to help de-escalate situations where the young person is experiencing anger.

8. Teens are susceptible to peer pressure

As teenagers experiment with becoming more independent, they begin to find new social groups and form new bonds with people their own age. This is an important part of the business of “growing up”.

peer pressure

Teenagers really do need more sleep, and later sleep, than adults. Source: Pixabay

But with that they become more susceptible to peer pressure as they try to fit in and show they are part of these new groups. The alternative, feeling left out, can really knock a teenager’s confidence at a time when we are desperately trying to build up their confidence.

It’s a difficult balance.

READ MORE: How to support a foster child who is using drugs

9. Teenagers really do need more sleep

We all know teenagers practically need to be blasted out of bed with dynamite in the morning. It’s a parental complaint as old as time.

Scientists have now shown that our sleep patterns really do change in our teenage years and teenagers need on average about nine-and-a-quarter-hours sleep a night. (However, everyone is different and many can cope well on a bit less. But they do on average need more than adults.)

On top of that, teenagers are biologically programmed to start feeling sleepy at the same time as adults but still feel sleepy during the morning. It’s all to do with melatonin (the sleep drug hormone) and when it switches on and off in their brains.

As a foster carer, understanding that these sleep patterns are biological will help you avoid arguments but, also, it’s really helpful for your young person to understand why they’re so tired in the morning, too. The great news is that there are simple steps we can all take to sleep better. Nicola’s website has tips:

10. Stress needs to be managed

Stress is a biological response to a threat. It’s designed to help maximise our performance at important moments. Although when nature evolved it in us, it didn’t have exams and homework in mind.

teenage stress

SToo much stress can lead to panic or anxiety, including in foster children. Source: Pixabay

Stress releases chemicals called adrenalin and cortisol into our bodies and if we stress too much or too often, this can lead us to feel panic and anxiety. If cortisol builds up in our system, this can negatively impact our health and our performance, leading to illness.

11. The “bandwidth” of our brains is finite

Our brains are amazing things, but there’s only so much they can concentrate on at any one time.

Nicola gave examples of four big users of brain “bandwidth”:

  • Intrusive thoughts and worries
  • New information and understanding (stuff you’ve learnt at school, and perhaps a new foster home)
  • Screens (the internet, phone, etc.)
  • Resisting temptation.

“We can’t do more than one of these effectively at any one time because each one of these takes so much of our brain’s bandwidth,” Nicola said. “So, a major worry will impact our ability to concentrate enough to take in new information, for example.”

teenager with smartphone

Reducing screen time is good for your foster child’s brain. Source: Pixabay

12. Healthy behaviour with our screens (adults and teenagers) is important for healthy lives

Science shows that our screens are distracting in many ways and can affect our ability to concentrate on a task – yet our screens are also wonderful, social and incredibly useful. We don’t need to fear screens but we do need to learnt o manage them well so that they can be our “tools, not our tyrants.” And adults need to set a much better example than they often do!

READ MORE: The Teenage Guide to Life Online

We probably all need to reduce our screen time. It’s stopping us doing many really important and valuable things:

  • Taking exercise
  • Having face-to-face conversations
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Sleeping
  • Relaxing

13. Take time out for relaxation

Every human needs these four things to ensure their own wellbeing (and this is equally true for foster carers and the young people in their care):

  • Food and water
  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Relaxation

If we fall down in any of these areas, things start to go wrong. And the area we most often fail to look after is relaxation. Remember, relaxation is not a luxury or a reward; it is necessary for your wellbeing.

14. Teach stress-management skills

There are a lot of stresses in a teenager’s life – school, study, peer pressure, home life. This can be amplified if the young person has experienced trauma or has a particularly complicated life experience.

Help them to calm down and take their mind off their worries. Teach them some stress-management techniques, like belly breathing or mindfulness.

READ MORE: Belly Breathing with Nicola Morgan</strong>

Teenagers should take daily relaxation, whether that’s reading, listening to music, getting out in nature or baking a cake. If they are constantly focused on one big worry, take their mind off it with something that will use up a lot of their brain’s “bandwidth”, like a movie or a computer game.

teenage stress management

Relaxation is important for every brain, including the teenage brain. Source: Pixabay

15. Teenagers, including your foster kids, learn from you

Probably every kid has had a parent say “do as I say, not as I do” at some point. It always happens when we’ve been caught doing the opposite of whatever it is we tell the young people in our lives to do.

If we want to instil good and positive behaviours in our young people, we need to model those behaviours ourselves.

Here are some helpful behaviours we can model that would benefit the teenagers in our lives:

  • Manage our own stress levels, including taking time out to relax
  • Cutting down our screen time, especially in the 90 minutes before bed
  • Not answering (or even being distracted by) phones and other screens during conversation time
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Demonstrating how we get better at things through practice
  • Accepting our own failures and treating them as a learning opportunity
  • Praising the efforts of others (focusing on efforts, rather than talents)
  • Providing a strong safety net (being there for your foster child when they need you).

Lika recruits foster carers for children in local authority care. We’re recruiting potential foster carers in Croydon as well as South and East London in Hackney, Barking, Dagenham, Lewisham, Redbridge, Ilford and Newham). Lika supports foster carers to develop their skills and knowledge to care appropriately for these children.

If you’re interested in foster care, get in touch.

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