Explaining the Teenage Brain
Raising a teenager can be an emotional roller-coaster. Teens are stubborn, moody, and often reckless. And, while no one’s condoning your son’s tendency to drive 20 miles over the speed limit or your daughter’s ability to transform from angel to imp in 10 seconds flat, gaining an understanding of the physical developments behind that “thick skull of theirs” may help you realize that your teen’s crazy behavior isn’t necessarily due to bad parenting.
So until they mature into responsible and congenial adults, you’ll have to work hard to open the door to understanding, communication and compromise. Even if it’s only to hear it slam when you enforce that curfew.
1. When reading facial expressions to determine the emotions of another person, teenagers use the amygdala, the part of the brain that guides “gut” reactions. Adults, in contrast, tend to rely on the part of the brain that controls reason and planning, called the frontal cortex. While the amygdala is about reactions, the frontal cortex is about rational thought. This may explain why adolescents tend to take more risks and act more impulsively than adults.
2. The gray matter (neurons) of the brain continues to thicken through childhood, peaking at around 11 for girls and 12 for boys. Around puberty, the excess connections are thinned or pruned, leaving only the essential (and most?used) connections. You can see why engaging in activities like piano or chess at a young age would help your teen later; with neural connections it’s use it or lose it!
3. Granted, everyone makes bad choices from time to time, but teenagers are often repeat offenders. The frontal lobe, which controls planning, organizing, and decision?making, is still developing. And, it’s appropriate that a teen might need a little extra help getting organized or planning his next science project.
4. Yes, your athletic son may have more girls calling him at 11 p.m. than the teen who sits in his basement playing video games. But it might not be because of his great body. It’s believed that physical activity most influences the cerebellum, the part of the brain that we use for higher thought, including social skills. So the more athletic, the more social. The more social, the more dating prospects!
5. Our internal body clocks – called Circadian rhythms – change at puberty. That’s why teens usually fall asleep later than kids and adults, and have a harder time waking up early. It’s a brain thing – not an act of defiance against your imposed bedtime.
6. Teenagers don’t have as much myelin (the white matter coating around nerves) as adults. In fact, this “nerve insulation” doesn’t fully develop until the mid?20s, which means there are fewer connections to the part of the brain insight (that darn frontal lobe again!). And without insight, your teen may frequently come across as selfish and unable to recognize how their actions affect others. Yes, it’s rude. But it’s also partially due to normal development.
7. The best brain news might be that your teen’s brain is “plastic,” that is, always capable of change. In fact, numerous studies have shown that our brains can be trained (to increase attention, strengthen memory, raise IQ, etc.) well into our 80s. Teenagers who undergo intense one?on?one brain training can strengthen the neural connections, making them faster, smarter thinkers and learners – in school, athletics, and extracurricular activities – and on the road.
8. While the brain’s plasticity may cause you to want to enroll your child in violin and Mandarin Chinese lessons, don’t overlook the importance of love. As Jay Giedd, M.D. explains in a PBS interview, “The brain is largely wired for social interaction and for bonding with caretakers. And sometimes it’s even disappointing to people that, with all the science and all the advances the best advice we can give is things that our grandmother could have told us generations ago: to spend loving, quality time with our children.”
So there you have it – a rundown on your teen’s ever?changing brain. It’s not always pretty, easy or predictable, but it’s also not permanent. Remind yourself that it’s a normal phase of development and it won’t last forever. And while you can’t lock them in their rooms until they’re 18, you can tighten the door’s hinges!