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How to Cool your Teenager's Limbic Lava (Including 10 Practical Tips!)

When are you finally going to use that brain of yours? Think before you speak! Think before you act! Parenting teens can be very frustrating. Your children may not fully appreciate you now, but if you hang in there, they will in the end. I certainly appreciate mine for not yelling too loud after staying at the ice rink so long that I froze my toes; or the day I took a dare to immerse myself in mud up to my neck in back of the high school to look cool in front of my neighborhood friends.

Undoubtedly, payback time comes when we become parents. I vividly remember the day my 16 year old daughter came home from her driver’s license test. She had not only just passed, but had done it on her first attempt. She was in orbit! I stopped her in mid sprint as she grabbed my car keys from the kitchen table. We were both simultaneously incensed. I, by her new found sense of entitlement over driving, and her, for being questioned. After all, she had just passed her test. What could possibly go wrong now? Sparks were flying to say the least!

Parents, sound familiar? Rest assured Mom and Dad, you are not being a bad parent and your teenager is doing what teens do. Remember the “Cool Hand Luke” movie with Paul Newman? A prison guard in conflict with Luke stated; “what we have here, is a failure to communicate.”

Brain based researchers would agree, in that moment, my daughter and I were having a failure to communicate from a biological perspective. Although adolescent brain based research is in its infancy, it is well established that the emotional center of the brain in the limbic system (amygdala), matures earlier than the higher order thinking and planning part of the brain (prefrontal cortex).

Teens with lesser developed thinking and planning parts of their brains have a much quicker route to their emotional center, resulting in what has been referred to by researchers and clinicians as “limbic lava.” Teenagers are predisposed to volcanic eruptions of raw emotion that can get quite hot. It is the job of the higher order thinking and planning part of the brain to cool the limbic lava. When our children are unable to cope with raw emotions and think rationally, they need guidance and support to make good decisions.

Activated limbic lava made it very difficult for my daughter to focus and answer the “who, what, when, where, and why” of my questions. “How can you not let me go? I just passed my test! Please, just let me go!” I assisted her by taking a breath, slowing myself down, and providing an explanation for my questions. When she became convinced that it was about her safety, she participated with me in making a plan.

Knowledge of limbic lava does not give us a pass to ignore our teen’s eruptions, nor for them to erupt whenever they want. If we view these eruptions as events that must be corrected immediately however, we could inadvertently be setting ourselves and our children up for failure. If we view our teenager’s development not as an event but an ongoing process, we will have better success. An adolescent’s path to a fully developed thinking and planning (prefrontal cortex) part of the brain can take 10-15 years, extending in to the mid-twenties.

Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegal refers to the adolescent