Adapted by Anna Libertin, NACAC’s communications specialist, from a webinar by Kim Stevens.
Kim Stevens is a program manager at NACAC who specializes in post-adoption support, youth development, training for caregivers, and trauma and healing. She is also the adoptive parent of four children from foster care. Kim presented “The Teen Years: Brain Development, Impact of Trauma on Growth, and Parenting Strategies Webinar,” a webinar for NACAC that included the tips below. View this webinar and others by experts in the field here.
“The capacity to care, share, listen, value, and be empathetic develops from being cared for, shared with, listened to, valued, and nurtured.”
— Dr. Bruce Perry
Teens who have experienced adoption or foster care have faced a lot of change: healing from trauma, coping with major life transitions, developing new routines, and experiencing puberty—just to name a few. As parents and caregivers, our role is to provide young adults with a safe space to explore, stumble, and succeed in this time of self-discovery by developing parenting strategies that prioritize family connection and establish trust.
Adolescence, Trauma, and the Brain
The brain dictates all of human behavior, from automatic responses like breathing to making small talk or laughing at jokes. So understanding how to build connections with teens requires understanding how age and past experiences can alter a brain over a lifetime—and how those brain changes affect behavior.
In adolescence, for example, the brain undergoes significant changes that affect a teen’s understanding of self and the world around them. As teens move into adulthood, they face increased independence, more intimate relationships, challenging and significant decisions, and other major life transitions. The brain is trying to prepare for this through:
- “Use it or lose it” cells. In preparation for adulthood, the adolescent brain experiences a massive increase in cell production—giving the brain an opportunity to develop new skills. However, without proper stimulation and/or the forgiving, caring guidance of an adult, these additional brain cells go unused and eventually decay. While this doesn’t prevent skills from being developed in the future, it can greatly delay the process.
- Neural highway repairs. In order to think, do, or feel more than one thing at once, different parts of the brain need to be in communication with one another. In adolescence, myelin—a coating that speeds up communication on the neural highway between parts of the brain—grows. Production of serotonin, a hormone that enhances mood, is slowed to allow for this change, meaning teenagers experience irritability and low moods more often.
- Development of the prefrontal cortex. Adolescence is also a great period of growth for the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain in charge of impulse control, organization, decision-making, prioritizing, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, initiating appropriate behavior, empathy, and more. But while the prefrontal cortex is developing, the amygdala—the more emotional part of the brain—takes over, meaning that most situations and conversations are interpreted primarily through an emotional mind rather than a rational one.
These changes, and many more, are biological and occur regardless of a child’s background. However, trauma, abuse, neglect, major life transitions, and other past experiences or environments contribute to how the brain develops during the crucial period, as the brain calls upon familiar behaviors or frequently used parts of the brain to determine what areas of the brain to strengthen and what areas to weaken in this mental “growth spurt.”
In other words, children learn to seek and develop their own strategies to satisfy the needs that are not being met, and over time, those strategies change the brain. For example, when a child is malnourished, their brain focuses on where and how to get the next meal. Over time, the child develops whatever behaviors are necessary to secure that meal, and the parts of the brain in charge of those behaviors grow stronger—an evolutionary means of ensuring that no matter what, the child will survive and be fed.
Similarly, when a child faces repetitive trauma, their brain develops behaviors to survive the high stress and remain alert, and eventually those behaviors alter the brain: the parts controlling fear and anxiety grow to protect the child, while the parts controlling logical or more critical thinking shrink. These two parts of the brain might be in conflict, too, resulting in flashbacks and difficulty interpreting or identifying emotional responses. Eventually, the neural pathways associated with fear are so chronically activated that the brain develops indelible memories, attitudinal changes, and shifts in perception. This means that long after a child establishes safety, the coping mechanisms used to survive traumatic experiences remain—resulting in unexpected or uncontrollable reactions to certain triggers, issues processing or understanding consequences, and other potentially challenging behaviors like hoarding, yelling, or aggressive outbursts. “Problematic behaviors” are the products of a child’s brain’s best attempts at satisfying their needs in the absence of dependable help.
|Triggers: What are they, and how can we respond?|
For people who experienced trauma, the brain connects certain sounds, smells, sights, touches, facial expressions and body movements, seasons, activities, and statements with traumatic incidents in order to prepare itself for future potential danger. Later, after safety has been established, the brain continues to process specific stimuli as dangerous, and an emotional response is triggered.
On the outside, a teen who has been triggered might look like they are “acting out”—their reaction seems extreme and uncontrollable, and pinpointing what catalyzed it can be challenging.
As with any behavior caused from trauma, parents and caregivers must use this as an opportunity to remind teens that you are there to support them—no matter how they behave or why they behave that way. After the teen calms down and feels safe again, use developmentally appropriate language to work with the teen on determining what triggered them and how you can work together to address the situation differently next time. Go on a walk, take a drive, or play a game and start a conversation: “I noticed that something happened last night that made you feel bad. We can try to figure out what it is. Can you remember what happened right before you got upset with me?”
A child’s brain development is often changed by the loss of birth family members, communities, homes, pets, and friends; early abuse or neglect; failed reunification or frequent moves in foster care; trauma; or the lack of a secure attachment figure. As a result, the way a child acts socially, emotionally, and cognitively might be out of sync with the child’s physical and chronological age. They might develop patterns of intense or unstable relationships, while resisting interdependence or connections with the community. They may also struggle with memory and cognition, affecting how they perform at school, at home, and at work. For this reason, teens may be mature in some domains and behind their age in others.
In short, adolescence alters, and in some ways slows down, a child’s ability to work through their thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Changes in brain chemistry and structure create behaviors that might feel unfamiliar or challenging—independent of whether a child has experienced trauma or not. But children who have experienced trauma must adjust to those typical changes in addition to coping with the developmental effects of past experiences.
Trauma and adolescence work together to interfere with a child’s sense of self and relationship, and the key to effective treatment and intervention is building and rebuilding connection.
How We Can Respond
Connection is key to helping teens heal from trauma and cope with the changes adolescence brings—but building a relationship isn’t always easy. A traumatized brain sees anything new or unusual as a threat, so rules or protective interventions feel like punishments and those who try to establish safety or trust are seen as perpetrators.
This natural lack of trust—coupled with a struggle to connect cause and effect and the mood changes typical in adolescence—can quickly create a negative family cycle. Imagine this scenario: A teen stays out past curfew, having not fully realized that by doing so, they will be grounded (despite you repeating this rule over and over again). So, when you ground them, the teen feels scared, angry, and confused—they process your punishment as a threat to the safety they’ve established. Unable to articulate these intense emotions, they react by being verbally aggressive and you, feeling tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed, react with anger as well.
You can see how quickly this situation can escalate, and how it becomes a cycle that can pit the parent and teen against one another.
Fortunately, with a deeper understanding of the impact that trauma and adolescence have on a teen’s brain, you can develop a more effective and understanding parenting mindset that disrupts the cycle before it begins. Specifically:
- Only intervene when necessary. Not all battles are worth fighting. Teenagers, in their effort to establish independence and explore themselves, can be challenging to parents regardless of past trauma, disabilities, or other adverse experiences. As parents, it can be easy to fall into the mindset of needing to fix every potentially challenging behavior.
Unless the behavior is dangerous, before you try to “fix” something, pause and consider whether this intervention is completely necessary: is this actually an opportunity to learn something or grow together? Will intervening now prevent a bigger problem later? Do you have the patience and ability to effectively navigate this situation?
Remember, you provide your child with the tools they need to be polite, gentle, creative, and respectful. Sometimes, you need to believe that those tools are enough!
Conversely, don’t assume that a quiet well-behaved teen doesn’t need intervention or support—compliance does not necessarily indicate improvement or healing, and your child might be struggling more than you realize.
- Prioritize connections. When you decide it is time to intervene, you need to be creative. Failing to connect cause with effect and having already experienced significant loss in their life, teens who have experienced trauma are not always afraid of or able to process punitive consequences. In other words, the “threat” of losing electronics, time with friends, and more will not effectively address a teen’s behavior, and can sometimes re-traumatize a child. In fact, teens may be afraid only of losing pride, which means punishments, fights, and ultimatums will often only serve to escalate the situation.
Understand that effective intervention for teenagers is not intervention that forcibly stops behaviors—it’s intervention that builds deeper connections and allows teens to understand the depth of your love for them, while providing them with the opportunities they need to learn from mistakes and missteps.
So, develop your consequences around relationship-building. Instead of a “time out” or a grounding, which take kids away from relationships, turn punishments into time spent with family. Going on walks or bike rides, dinner dates, or other “adventures” with parents, grandparents, or siblings isn’t the ideal way for many teens to spend their Saturday, but it provides an effective consequence to negative behaviors while still creating connections and communicating that no matter what they do, you are in their life forever.
Many parents believe that activities like joining a sports team or having friends over are rewards for good behavior. Rather, they are valuable ways to build connection, support healing, and model good behavior! Let your children engage in extracurricular activities. Make your home the home that friends want to visit. Seek opportunities for teens to care for others through volunteer work or watching over a pet. Find ways for your teen to laugh, play, dance, sing, and move—all of these activities work to heal trauma at its most fundamental level and help youth develop a sense of belonging, self-worth, and confidence. The true work of being a parent and being a kid is having fun together.
As a child gets older, they are seen by society as more responsible for their behaviors—meaning parents and caregivers lose more control over the consequences a teen might face from the outside world. If a young adult steals, they might be arrested. If they fail a class, they might get kicked out. In these situations, remember that your job is to communicate to your teen that no matter what they do, you are unconditionally committed to them.
- Work as a team. Your relationship is a partnership, and your child needs to be treated like an active member of their own healing journey—because they are! When considering consequences, activities, treatment options, and more, include your child in the decision-making process by offering them a choice (consider offering a choice between two or more options you’ve pre-approved).
Give them the language and space to participate in this relationship. Because trauma and adolescence can isolate the “thinking” part of the brain from the “feeling” part, it can be hard for teens to find language that describes their moods or experiences. As a result, behaviors become the primary way to communicate emotions, and what might look like defiant behavior is just a means of processing a situation. Instead of asking why something happens, step back and ask the child to share what they think occurred in their own words. Ask them what they need, how they feel in this moment, and what other options are available to them the next time something like this happens. Move at their pace—pausing and stepping back if you recognize that they seem overwhelmed or uncomfortable. Avoid having these conversations in the moment or in invasive environments, where a teen might feel overwhelmed by the pressure to fill silences or make eye contact. Aim instead for stress-free opportunities later, when you both have had the time to process immediate emotions, and consider opening up dialogue during a physical activity like a walk around the block, a game of basketball, or a drive to dinner.
Finally, remember that any partnership requires equal give and take. Allow your teen to practice caring and listening by sharing your emotions with them too. While it may feel unnatural to let yourself cry around your child or share how you are feeling, establishing this honesty allows them to see how much you care for them. This is an important way to model trust, but it’s also an essential step for building connections.
In the midst of major physical and developmental changes, teens are working hard to understand themselves, their feelings, their bodies, their behaviors, and their narrative. By taking a family-centered approach to parenting, you ensure that they can trust you with their story, experiences, and healing journey, in addition to breaking the negative and ineffective family cycle of action, reaction, and punishment.
This is tough: prioritizing your relationship means repeatedly reaching out, staying steady, and being there for your child when it feels most challenging. This is concrete, hands-on, long-term work, but it’s part of a lifelong commitment to helping this child learn how to attach and trust, enabling them to offer the same care to the world in the future. When it gets hard, remember: love is an action—a verb, not a noun.
There is always hope that even when a child experiences trauma or emotional, physical, and mental injury, they can recover. In fact, there are many great books that talk about this ability—called neuroplasticity—including: