Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Questions from year 9 students

Recently – actually, not very recently but I somehow forgot to write this sooner – I did what has become an annual online Q&A with the Year 9 girls at Bedford Girls School. They always have loads of questions, which makes for a really fun session and I learn a lot about their interests and concerns. There are also always more questions than we have time for so I commit to answering them here.

However, since that commitment I have moved my blog to Substack and told you, blog readers, that I won’t be adding new stuff here. So now I’m stuck! But I decided it would be better for the girls if I put it here, rather than Substack, so here it is.

Here are the questions we didn’t have time for and my answers

1. How are interests formed?

Interests are formed from a tangled mix of influences. Sometimes it’s easy to see exactly how an interest developed. For example you might be able to detect that you became interested in playing in an orchestra because your mum did. Or because you went to see an amazing orchestra when you were a child and it made a huge impression on you. Or because some musicians came to your school and they inspired you. Or because the first time you played a violin you got lots of praise.
Other times it’s not easy to see why you became interested in that thing when others around you didn’t. But it would be a mixture of influences.
Here are the things that can influence whether we become interested in a topic or hobby or activity:
  • Opportunity – if you are introduced to it at just the right time and have the chance to persist with it
  • Enjoyment – if you get pleasure from the thing, which might come from success and praise
  • Value – if the people around you think this is a valuable way to spend your time you are more likely to engage with it. So, for example, if you grow up in a family where music or football or art or gardening are valued and praised, you are more likely to become involved
  • Personality – different things suit different people
  • Success – people don’t generally become very interested in things they can’t manage well

But, whichever of those factors start to make you interested in a particular activity or topic, one things always then happens which makes this become more of an interest: you spend time doing it and that means you become more expert or knowledgeable or skilful. And that is very likely to make you even more interested.

So, interests start by chance but then become deep-rooted by time and effort.

2. “Why do you care about the teenage brain?”

I care about all human brains and we are all much more the same than different. There’s actually not a huge difference between a teenage brain and an adult brain. We are humans first and then humans of a stage/age and individuals next.
But, yes, I am specifically interested in teenage brains. I think there are two main reasons.
  1. There are a few special things about teenage brains which I firmly believe are helpful to know. Helpful for you to know and helpful for your parents and teachers to know. That understanding can help you feel better about some of the challenges you face and help you make your brains work as well for you as possible. When our brains are working well, we feel better. Everything feels better!
  2. I know that if I had had this knowledge when I was a teenager I would have had a better time and found it easier to achieve my goals and be a better and stronger person. So I share my knowledge about teenage brains to make your lives better, because I care and because it’s fair.

3. “How does our brain make decisions?”

There are two main types of decision to think about. The first is the type of decision you don’t think about! And those decisions actually occupy the vast majority of our actions. Think about when you wake up and all the things you do before you leave the house for school. Almost every one of those has become almost automatic – your brain makes your body do it, so it is a decision, but you don’t have to think about whether to move your arm this way or that as you shower / get dressed / brush your teeth / pick up your school bag. But they are decisions – active actions – and a baby or toddler can’t make them. Walking involves a decision to put one foot in front of the other, and to put it exactly here and not there, but you don’t have to think about it.
Those are decisions which you have made so often that they have become automatic and they take very little of your attention, or your “brain bandwidth”.
The second tyope of decision is probably what you meant when you asked the question: decisions where you genuinely have to think, “Will I do this or that?” Sometimes they are very quick decisions – for example how you will respond when someone says something to you. For others, you have more time to consider what you will do.
So, how do we make those decisions?
There are two brain systems to think about:
  1. The Limbic system, involving emotion, temptation, drive, reward, instinct, gut feeling, fear. This is sometimes called the hot system. It’s very powerful.
  2. The Prefrontal cortex (PFC), involving control, reason, looking ahead and weighing up consequences and benefits. This is sometimes called the cool system. It’s the last part of the brain to finish developing and doesn’t do so until you are well into your mid-late 20s.

When you have a decision to make, the hot system kicks in first: it’s about wanting or not wanting to do it, about feeling, about desire or fear, about what I want now. Then the PFC steps in and tries to help you be more measured, to work out what you “should” do, what will be better in the long run. It allows you to do something you’re scared of if you think it’s a brave and right thigs to do. It allows you to resist temptation to do something that you judge will have a bad result.

Often, of course, we make mistakes in decisions, even if we try really hard to get it right. Often it’s incredibly difficult to know what the right decision is. After all, we can’t predict the future, even though that’s what the PFC tries hard to do.

When you have a difficult decision, I think it’s very helpful to think about what these two brain areas are pushing you towards. Be analytical about it – make lists, perhaps. “What are my emotions pushing me to do? Should I go with my emotions or should I rein them in and be more cautious and longterm?” It won’t always be the same answer but the more carefully we consider the more likely we are to get things right.

However, I also think it’s important to realise that we can’t spend too much time trying to work everything out. Sometimes, it’s right to go with our instinct. I think maturity is about learning to get that balance right: “When should I think this through really carefully and when should I just go for it?”

4. “How to make good choices in your education. How to cope with clubs, homework and everything in between.”

I think the previous answer probably gives you a really good start on this and answers the first part of the question?
The second part of the question is also about making decisions, in three different ways:
  1. Deciding which and how many activities you have time and energy to be involved in. Clubs and hobbies are really important but you do also need time to breathe and think. If you find that you’re always rushing, feeling overwhelmed and in danger of not doing your schoolwork well and staying healthy, it is time to drop a club. You can always pick it up again later.
  2. Planning and managing your time. Some people are better than others at this. I could write a whole article on this (and I do cover it in my latest book, No Worries) but my top tip would be to talk to anyone you know who is well organised and see what they recommend. It’s a set of skills to learn and your teachers should also be able to help you.
  3. Making the decision to do the work rather than allow distractions – in other words, being strong enough to avoid distractions and focus on the task so that you achieve what you want to achieve. You might find this article useful. I definitely recommend turning off your phone and putting it out of sight. It’s such an easy thing to do (really!) and very effective. Switch off any notifications on your computer if you’re using one. And use a timer – set it for anything from 25 to 40 minutes and do not allow any distraction for that time.

5. “Why can’t I control my  giggles?”

Four ideas about this:
  1. It’s much more common in your age group than in adults. It does sometimes still happen to us but we should be better at controlling it because we have a more developed PFC, the control centre mentioned above.
  2. It seems to be something to do with social connection. If you think about it, the times you get those giggles are when you are with others who you know are thinking the same thing. You would not normally get the giggles on your own. We know that laughter itself is about social bonding and it’s likely that the uncontrollable giggles a group of people can get would be to do with that connection, the shared feeling of amusement at something.
  3. And what makes it harder is when you are in a situation where you aren’t supposed to be laughing. The more you try to stop it the harder it gets. I can’t explain very clearly why that is such a factor but you know it yourself – if you could just leave the room and go and have a huge laugh it would all be fine but you’re trapped by the situation and it becomes overwhelming.
  4. There are a few individual conditions that are associated with inappropriate laughter: autism and certain neurological conditions (brain illnesses). But, unless you already know that you have such a condition, don’t worry that your giggles are due to this as uncontrollable giggles are such a common experience for teenagers – and we can all relate –  that that is really all you need to think about.
Top tip when it happens: DO NOT LOOK AT ANYONE ELSE!

6. “Why do I get intrusive thoughts?”

To understand this, you need to understand something about how our brains work in general.
How a thought is formed
A thought can be something like “The capital of France is Paris” or “What if XXX happens?” One is a fact, or piece of knowledge, and one is a worry. (There are other sorts of thoughts but let’s just think about facts and worries.)
Each one – and every single other thought you might have – is formed in the same way: by repetition in your mind. The more times you think it, the easier it becomes to have that thought again. That’s good news for “The capital of France is Paris” because you might need to have that thought easily to hand if someone asks the question. But it wouldn’t be good news if you kept thinking about Paris being the capital of France unnecessarily; it would be a waste of time and space in your brain and your day.
And it’s also good news for “What if XXX happens” if you only have that thought when there’s something useful you can do about it – for example, to take reasonable steps to avoid XXX. But it wouldn’t be good news if you kept thinking about it unnecessarily; it would be a waste of time and space in your brain and your day.
The difference between those two thoughts is that the Paris one is quite unlikely to become intrusive but the “what if” one could easily become intrusive. A thought becomes intrusive when you keep thinking about it so many times that it becomes like a habit in your mind.
A really useful article I wrote for you and your parents/teachers is here or go straight to the Powerpoint: Pathways exercise
Some people are more vulnerable to intrusive thoughts. I am! We have to learn to recognise them for what they are: perfectly reasonable worries to start with but problems if we let them get out of control. I’ve written about this in No Worries and in Positively Teenage.

Thank you for your questions, Bedford Girls’ School! 
Schools, why not consider an online Q&A with a year group (or more)? I can also add in mini-talks on chosen topics.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to subscribe on Substack – it’s free unless you want access to the paid content and full archive including advice for writers.

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