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Yelling at your teen? Blame your brain gears (and find out how to change them!)

Have you ever described conversations with your teenager along the lines of “they know how to push my buttons”? Many parents find it difficult to stay calm and rational when discussing certain issues with their teenagers. But you can learn to push your own buttons, different ones, to get things going in a better direction.

It all comes down to the way our brains work. Current research indicates that we have two separate Operating Systems, if you like, that are designed for different situations.


  • System 1 is often referred to as the unconscious or impulsive system. It evolved to help us survive by quickly recognizing potential threats and responding rapidly to either escape or fight. It came in very handy a million or so years ago, for instance when trying to decide if that rustling noise in the grass was a hungry lion. It can still be useful today — sometimes impulsive or quick decisions may be needed. But they may also turn out to be not such a good idea upon reflection. And System 1 is not designed to weigh up different options and react calmly in emotionally heated situations.
  • System 2 is our brain’s more sophisticated problem-solving system. It helps us to consider a range of alternative actions and make informed decisions about which one to follow. It’s ideal for handling the complexities of modern life, but not much use when you have to make a split-second call on whether to use the brake or the accelerator.


So how do we work out when to use which system? The problem is that we often don’t make an active choice; we just go along with whatever happens automatically.

When we become upset or angry — for example, if these emotions are triggered by something our teenager says (or yells) or does — System 1 often kicks in. To make things worse, this will quite often evoke a similar reaction in our teenagers! And the real kicker? A teenager’s brain is usually not yet able to recognize this. Often, they’re simply not capable of making the switch to System 2.

So it’s really up to us, the adults. Although System 1 can fire up very rapidly, there are often some early warning signs. They mostly have to do with preparing for ‘fight or flight’ and include increases in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. With experience, we can learn to:

  • Spot these early-warning signals
  • Actively decide to switch off System 1
  • Consciously bring System 2 into play.

This isn’t always easy, but as with most skills, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Learning to self-regulate emotions is a very important life skill and is associated with a raft of important outcomes like reducing or preventing heart disease, stroke, criminality, obesity and relationship breakdown. Not only does learning this skill help our teenagers — it’s important for us too!

Staying calm in emotionally intense situations has a positive effect on our health and well-being, reduces the likelihood of serious conflict with your teenager, and sets a great example of self-regulation for your teenager to copy. So give it a try, and even if you struggle at first, stick with it. You can show your kids that calm is the new cool.