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How to tame your teen

Wish you could get inside your teen's head? Now you can (well, sort of). Queen Anne's head Julia Harrington busts the myths using actual science.

Kids don’t come with an instruction manual, more’s the pity, so just when you think you’ve nailed it, another curve ball hits you in the face. As actor Ed Asner wisely said, “Raising kids is part joy and part guerrilla warfare.” Never has statement been truer than during the teen years. The moods are more dramatic than an election night swing0meter and their esteem, confidence and resilience are so fragile you’ll struggle to avoid one of those land mines blowing up.

Head mistress Queen Anne's School Caversham Julia Harrington in teal dress pictured in front of a giant clock

Queen Anne’s School Head, Julia Harrington

Before you start knocking back the gin in total despair, panic not. It’s totally normal, according to Julia Harrington, Queen Anne’s dynamic head. Julia is passionate about neuroscience and how you can retrain the brain to work more effectively. And she knows her onions. Having ditched her media career, Julia retrained as a teacher and psychodynamic counsellor (working with adults dealing with childhood baggage) and launched Brain Can Do, a research programme (working with University of Reading and Goldsmiths) studying the effects self affirmation, musicality, stress and much, much more.

Ready for the science bit? Nah me neither. So thanks goodness Julia is here to guide us through the neuro myths that might just help you tame your teen. Over to you, Julia…


Myth 1/ Be a stuck record

Repeat after me… actually don’t. Repeating something, doesn’t mean kids will remember it. The first thing to know is that your brain is actually very lazy and will do as little as possible to keep you alive. All the time it’s filtering information and saying: ‘Nah, not important, move on.’ For teachers we have got to be able to engage that curiosity and passion to get the brain to move out of that mode. When you do that, you engage the amygdala – the bit of the brain that deals with emotion and sparks off all those good warm feelings – so learning becomes something that both hurts and is rewarding.

My advice? Don’t spoon feed kids, they won’t learn. Don’t rote learn, make sure you’re passionate, if you’re not, kids won’t engage. If that lazy old brain believes it is going to feel good, it will remember it – achieving deep learning. You need to know that short term memory will only ever learn 7-9 things at a time. So don’t try to overload. From our research, we discovered our girls achieve a better quality of learning when they speak something out – engaging the auditory and visual bits of their brain. If you explain something to a friend and they feed it back to you, it’s deep learning. Your brain is able to store and process that information far better than from sitting and reading a book. Strategies that can benefit both study and wellbeing.


Myth 2/ Create a stress-free zone

A lot of parents don’t want their children to be stressed. But stress is about getting the body to fire up and be at the top of its game. Too much stress and your brain thinks there’s danger and triggers a fright or flight response. Blood goes to your muscles, your prefrontal cortex [the bit of your brain in charge of personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour] is not interested. The only message getting through is ‘GET OF HERE!’

You have to wrestle with the brain’s natural urge by controlling your breathing and visualising a place that helps you de-stress. One of our teachers pictures his bike because he loves riding; another visualises a library because she loves books. So the girls at Queen Anne’s started to talk about where they could go when they are in a flight to fright mode. By tying it to experiences, and particularly being able to say I’m not perfect, this is what I do when things go wrong, they control stress when it becomes overwhelming. But an optimum amount of stress is essential to be the best.


Myth 3/ You snooze you lose

Teen girl sleeps on skateboard headphone round neck white t shirt

Ahh, the familiar bed time battle

Teenagers think they’re super human and need very little rest to function. Sleep is very individual, too little is as bad as too much, but teenagers should be having 9-10 hours a night. But how many adolescents do you know hitting those numbers? In Europe they get 8, the UK, 7, and in the US, 6.5 hours per night. Get enough sleep and you’re able to work more effectively and improve focus because sleep gives your brain the time to reformat properly. It’s critical for filing and waking up with the aha moment.


Myth 4/ Strive for perfection

Parents often fall into the trap of saying to their kids: ‘Don’t worry, darling, you’re perfect. Everything is going to be fine.’ Only exacerbated by social media. Actually it’s a big shock when things go wrong. Most critically what our young people need is the ability to set their own internal compass, rather following the crowd for fear of being left out. Being allowed to be their own person improves self esteem, confidence, resilience and your connections within the community. Giving them the tools to shrug off negativity.


Myth 5/ Follow the herd

Close up of black and white cow face

Creativity dives in adolescence. A person’s sense of individuality is under pressure during puberty and fuels teenagers’ desire to look alike and conform. Our research shows if you’re meeting lots of people, you’ll be cleverer and feel more connected. Sticking in small groups is soooo unhealthy. It comes from a primal bit of the brain that’s now becoming exacerbated by social media which encourages everyone to look alike. There’s nothing wrong with you and you can rewire your brain to do things differently. Your head’s telling you to be a carbon copy of each other, but why not be different and see if the world ends? Oh it didn’t. Success.


Myth 6/ Show me the money

Motivation is interesting. The amount of time I hear parents offering a fiver to encourage their child to work hard, but dangling a financial carrot is far less effective than saying: “Ace your Spanish test and you’ll be able to live and work in Spain.” A better motivator and one that helps the brain absorb the information more effectively is by saying learning this Spanish will take them to the country and give them a great time. If your child can visualise something they’re more likely to be able to recall the information when they need it during your exams 2 years later.

I’m seeing rjoca and paella, I just need to work on learning Spanish.


Myth 7/ Work, work, work…

Wooden table person on laoptop frappuccino iPhone and protractor

Making your child stay in their room and revise is possibly not the best thing to do. We did some analysis on Y11 mocks. We were quite worried as there were a whole load of girls who piled in to help out on a production. We were thinking you’ve got mocks, really? But when we looked the data, those who were involved in the play did better than expected. Why? They were motivated. They wanted so much to do this play so much that they focussed on revising, possibly because they were being very creative.

We also know that when our young people go to university and into industry, the very thing you need? Creativity. Flexibility. Schools (and parents) become quite obsessed with league tables so the learning becomes quite prescriptive. Learn this, regurgitate that and you’ll be ok. A lot of the work we do incorporates philosophy, ethics and creativity – giving the girls the skills to make their own life choices.


Myth 8/ I can’t do it

We have done lot of work on self affirmation and, among 15 year old girls, if they say, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ before they go into an exam, they do better. Your self-confidence is a bit wobbly at that age, and I can say to a girl, ‘You’ve done really well’, but unless she believes it, it won’t be effective. Does the same thing happen in boys? We’re not sure. We do know teen love music and which helps performance and emotional regulation. If you give something words it brings into play the logical bit of your brain, and it calms that chimp bit of your brain that says ‘PANIC’. The biggest headline message is that your brain is the most wonderful organ. Don’t let anyone tell you that you will only get these grades. your brain is unique to you and, if you work out how to get your brain into shape, you’ll do your best.


Myth 9/ You don’t understand

Not entirely a myth, sometimes it’s hard to speak teen

Stay connected to your child. You may not understand their world and they may not understand yours, but if you communicate and that emotional connection, you will stay bonded. Don’t flip out when they make mistakes. We know that the prefrontal cortex does become disconnected – it’s meant to – while teenagers are developing. One day they will seem very mature and the next they’ll do something utterly daft. Remember that’s meant to happen. Allow them to choose what kind of person they want to be. Try not to impose things on them: ‘This is the kind of family we are’, ‘This is the kind person you are going be’. Do that and you’ll end up nowhere.

If you would like to read my review of Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, it’s right here. Next open morning is Fri 16 Nov.

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