Norfolk parenting expert on the new science of parenting pre-teens

PUBLISHED: 17:56 03 May 2018 | UPDATED: 17:57 03 May 2018

Did parenting teenagers just get easier? Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Did parenting teenagers just get easier? Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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New brain science says you can help your children through their teens before they hit puberty

We all know that the early years for a child are an essential time for healthy growth and development, particularly between conception and three years. Children’s brains are at their most active during the first five years of life, which means plasticity (when brains make neural connections in response to environments) is rapid.

Brains, during this time, are shaped by experiences. For example, we don’t teach toddlers to speak; they learn to speak by being exposed to our words. Their brains are changed through experiencing the language they hear around them. This ‘early years’ stage is the first window of opportunity we have to shape our children’s brains and it’s why parenting the under-fives is so intense – their learning is so rapid it’s hard to keep up with them!

Recent research published by Unicef says there’s a second window of opportunity, for adolescents. It classifies adolescents as being nine to 14 years, highlighting the first two years after the onset of puberty as being the crucial time when we can have the most influence.

This is good news for parents and casts a much more optimistic light on the teenage years. They are no longer years through which we have to survive, rendered powerless by the fact that the teenage brain is not yet developed. Rather, we have a chance to help our children BEFORE the problems start. We can help them thrive.

So what can we do?

Alongside the huge physical and mental changes that are occurring within our pre-teens, they are also fulfilling the important job of trying to find their place amongst their peers. Their emotions are heightened and they have a strong sense of wanting to belong, to be accepted and admired. On the flip side, they are extremely sensitive to feelings of rejection, embarrassment and humiliation. Although they enjoy getting more respect, they also realise they have increased responsibility. The combination of this can lead to stress; and it is stress that is an adolescent’s greatest vulnerability. Another potential problem is associated with their motivation for immediate gratification, often leading them towards risk-taking and sensation-seeking.

Our job is to encourage them to form a healthy pattern of behaviours in response to situations they find difficult. This will help them understand that feelings of frustration are a natural part of learning and, in time, their resilience will increase along with their self-esteem. We also need to create an environment of stability and support – a safe place to return to after the important work of discovering and establishing their social identify. Finding out what makes them feel valued and recognised will ensure they have some sense of belonging at home.

By investing time in our pre-teens and building strong relationships with them, we will be able to have a profound effect on shaping their brains for their future.

Reference: Balvin, Nikola; Banati, Prerna (2017). The Adolescent Brain: A second window of opportunity - A compendium, Miscellanea UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti, Florence.

Andrea Rippon is a Certified Parent Educator and a mum of two teenagers.

She helps parents build strong, long-term relationships with their children (toddlers to teenagers) by using evidence-based communication skills and can also offer parent coaching by Skype. If you’ve got a question for her, please contact

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