A guide to everyday psychology

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Children’s and Teenagers’ Brains, Minds and Mental Health

The Takeaway message?

Children encounter new emotions throughout their lives – and especially during adolescence (9-16+). They feel all kinds of emotions that they cannot understand. In many cases, they will not even be consciously aware of them, but simply experience them. They will think irrational/obsessive thoughts and feel motivated to do things that make no logical sense – especially to outside observers.

But these are not symptoms of mental disorders! They are the normal pains and consequences of changing from a child into adult. For adults (parents and teaching professionals) it is far more important to make children aware of this transition and help them through it – rather than fret about whether they have a mental disorder. Making children’s emotional development as informed and as easy as possible is more far important than cramming them with extra maths.

And, of course, adults must always be aware of their own biases!

Disorders, child development and impressionable minds

Children’s mental health features constantly on television and in other media. The diagnosis of childhood mental disorders has grown enormously over the last few years. And these disorders are often attributed to damaging new influences on ‘impressionable minds’ – especially social media in general, and porn in particular.

But although these influences are sometimes toxic, they are only part of the story.

It will surprise no one if I say that teenage brains/minds are not fully developed by 13-18. Estimates vary, but according to some writers our brains are not fully matured until we reach our mid-twenties.

And even in later adult life, our brains continue (literally) to change because of the things we learn. Usually this improves our processing efficiency, rather like computers and cookies. Most of us, for example, get better at typing and doing crosswords with practice – and this is because physical changes occur in the brain’s pathways. But I’ll come back to adult ‘brain-training’ elsewhere.

So throughout childhood and adult life, our brains and minds grow, develop and change.

The problem for adults who hope to understand their children’s thinking is this: although we can understand that child minds are different from adult minds, we are not so good at understanding the enormous practical implications this difference has. When children misunderstand things it isn’t simply because they lack experience of the world… They misunderstand things because their brains and minds have yet to develop fully, and they process information differently from adults. And because they are equipped only with a developing brain, children’s minds process some types of information particularly poorly.

This is no great new insight, of course… The Swiss child psychologist, Jean Piaget, talked extensively about developmental stages almost 100 years ago. But Piaget was mostly focused on intellectual and moral development.

Intellect and emotions

The problem with the focus on intellect is that it tells us little about the development of emotional understanding. This lags well behind the development of physical maturity and the ability to reason things through. There are child prodigies in almost everything that needs intellectual problem-solving skills – including chess, mathematics and music.

But being a prodigy in emotional analysis is almost unheard of. To be sure, children feel emotions very intensely (perhaps even more than adults). But they don’t always recognise or understand their emotions easily, and they don’t always know what to do with them. They don’t think: “Never mind, all this will be behind me soon.” And so, if they try to analyse the cause and effect behind their emotions, they often make mistakes.

Parenting has changed greatly in the last 50/80 years. Today many parents (and mental health professionals) are more focused on happiness and mental well-being than they used to be… Today’s Western parents believe many things that the parents of the 1950s did not. Punishment is out and love is in. For better or worse, love and friendship is steadily replacing awe and obedience. And, in a way that was rare in the 1950s, today’s parents often try to understand their children’s feelings and assist their emotional development. Hoora! But there are problems with this…

Understanding children with adult logic

The main problem is that parents (and psychotherapists of every sort) often try to understand child thinking by applying their adult logic and adult mind processes: “if that was me, I would feel x, y or z”.  

Putting ourselves in other people’s shoes is the normal (even instinctive) empathetic way to try to understand what they think. Unfortunately, adult logic doesn’t always provide correct answers that can usefully explain children’s thoughts and behaviour.

Adult logic – even that of Sherlock Holmes – will often fail to uncover the invisible forces at work in a child’s mind. And when today’s parents fail to understand their child’s feelings or behaviour, they often call the doctor.

The difference between an adult’s and a child’s thinking is hard to explain in the abstract. So let me give you a concrete – and quite whacky – example from my own development. There is no such thing as Ludwig van Beethoven disorder. But it’s a useful way to look at it.

Ludwig van Beethoven disorder: a case study

When I was around 11/13, I developed an ‘inhibition’ about names; I could never just refer to someone solely by their surname. It couldn’t just be ‘Beethoven’. It had to be Ludwig van Beethoven. Back then, I had no idea why I felt compelled to do this, any more than I understood the superstitious fears that compelled me to read a chapter of the bible every day.

Adults and other children found my constant use of Christian names weird. Most people thought I was just showing off, and some told me so. When people asked why I did it, I usually replied (in tormented and angry embarrassment) “I don’t know”. That wasn’t me being obstructive: I genuinely didn’t know (children often don’t) why I did anything that wasn’t very obvious. It was a bad time, feeling torn between my compulsion to say William Shakespeare and the desire to stop doing the thing that was making me look ridiculous. But I could do nothing about it. And, as I grew older, the habit gradually faded away.

The habit/compulsion I had back then would very likely be called a ‘symptom’ today. And it could easily lead to an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, especially when other factors were taken into account: I was very good at chess, I was socially clumsy and I often smelled horrible. But the actual cause of my problem was not showing off and it was not ASD (or any other kind of disorder). And it was only many years later that I was able to understand it.

Growing pangs and pains

An event that happened when I was about 9, confirming that growing up was something to be ashamed about (not that I recognised that event as a trigger until many years later – and I’ll discuss that event in more detail elsewhere). It is useful because it shows how easily something tiny can affect young minds.

Age 9, I really didn’t want to grow up. But there were problems with that… I was growing up. My parents were even buying me ‘grown up’ presents, and they expected me to take responsibility for things. There were biological changes happening too about which I knew nothing at all. All these events were causing other quirky behaviour and feelings. But the event that directly triggered my ‘Ludwig van Beethoven disorder’ was the move from primary school to secondary school.

Suddenly, I was no longer called by my Christian name, but by my surname. I was now “Timms”.

I feared my parents finding out about this tangible proof that I was becoming an adult (not that I understood any of this in concrete terms at the time: there was just the emotion). My anxiety about being called by my surname was so great that it spread to the way I referred to other people. I couldn’t call anyone else by their surname alone. I had developed… ‘Ludwig van Beethoven Disorder’. Hehe.

The adult vs child perspective

The important point here is that no adult could ever have used logic to work out what was going on in my child mind – because it was so illogical by adult standards. Trying to understand children’s behaviour and feelings by applying adult logic is often very misleading. Child minds don’t always work in the same way as an adult’s mind, especially when processing cause and effect with their emotions.

By way of analogy, it’s rather like trying to use human reasoning to understand what a cat is thinking. We do not have a cat’s mind. Mostly, we know this, so we give cats much more slack than we give to humans: when a cat suddenly has a ‘scatty turn’ we find it charming. When a child gets highly excited, we check to see what’s in their orange juice.

It’s not too difficult to grasp the notion of ‘different minds’ in young children. But it’s not so easy with teenagers. Teenagers often look and sound like adults. And a lot of the time they do think just like adults – just not every teenager, at every age, in every situation. Their brains and minds are still in flux.

So what can adults usefully take from this?

  • Be aware that children’s minds can interpret the things you say and do in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. When you tell children they can be ‘whoever they want to be’, or even just show them your fear of spiders, you are communicating with a child’s mind. There is no guarantee that they will ‘receive’ the same message that you think you have ‘sent’!
  • Be very hesitant to interpret the weird things your children do or say as ‘symptoms’ of disorder. Just because ‘getting a diagnosis’ might bring peace of mind and professional ‘help’ in the short term, there’s no guarantee that the long term outcomes will all be positive. Decades later, your child may still see its life through the prism of disorder – one it might never have had. There are no cures for illnesses that people don’t have!
  • Children learn things via the same processes as adults, but might give different weight to the ‘inputs’; things you regard as irrelevant they might consider important.
  • Be wary of ‘one-stop’ explanations for feelings or behaviour (for example, that ‘eating disorders’ result from children seeking to exert ‘control’). There will often be multiple causes. Life is messy. All kinds of psychological processes operate within us, and they often pull in opposite directions. Mental life rarely, if ever, fits into simple boxes – especially the boxes of psychiatric diagnosis.

Open-minded humility – for adults

Perhaps the best advice is that we should try to observe other people (and ourselves) open-mindedly, and try to be aware of our biases. Even when we grow old and possess a ‘mature mind’, we can never reach a ‘state of grace’ where we know it all.

I used to hope that, as I got older, I would one day reach a point where I stopped doing things that make me look stupid or desperate. For example, I have always hoped that, one day, I’ll not feel a need to pretend to know more about cars than I actually do when I visit the garage.

Will there ever be a time when I do not look back to my last decade and think: “Oh God, did I really say or do that?” Well, I’m now well into my sixties – and it hasn’t happened yet!

In life, we can never have too much humility. We can never have too much awareness of our own biases.