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The Teen Brain

Teen brains are still developing. Parents observe the signs of a brain not-yet-ready for adulthood and often misinterpret the behavior as willful acts of defiance and insubordination. It might be helpful for parents to view their developing teens as they did their toddlers, growing but not full grown yet.

The major changes in the brain mirror those that happened at earlier stages of development.

Brain-Based Solutions and Strategies

The greatest density of brain cells begins in the womb with an overproduction of brain neurons between the third and sixth months of gestation. Just before birth, there is a pruning process where many of the unnecessary cells are eliminated.

This process reoccurs again between 5 and 6 year of age and at puberty. In adolescence, around 11-20 years of age, the brain goes through a period of rapid addition of networks and connections followed by a period of pruning or optimization based on what is used or not. This process is not completed until somewhere around 25 years of age when the final remodeling of the prefrontal cortex is thought to occur.

Brain-Based Solutions and Strategies

The changes in behavior that are observed in adolescence are due, in part, to how the brain has already developed. The emotional centers, located deep within the brain, mature before the thinking and reasoning centers in the prefrontal cortex. During adolescence, the emotional centers may be more active in managing some kinds of thought which give different results than if that information were managed by the more logical thinking centers in the prefrontal cortex.

In this period, teens are thinking with their emotional center since the prefrontal cortex is busy with the final stages of development. Some research indicates that teens do not read facial expressions with the same part of the brain that adults do, setting the stage for communication problems. It is the parents’ prefrontal cortex of better judgment that must guide teens in highly emotional and impulsive states.

Recent research shows that the proliferation of neuronal growth that occurs in puberty is mainly in the thinking centers of the brain in the prefrontal cortex.

This is the same brain region that is responsible for the higher order mental functions like thinking and planning. Parents observe changes in behavior that are directly related to changes in the activity in this area of the brain. The maturity of the sex hormones compound the picture by affecting, not only brain connections, but also behaviors and sexual attraction. The physical changes from childhood to adulthood are obvious and profound. There is an increase in height, weight, secondary sexual characteristics and change in sleeping patterns.

Parents can observe changes due to adolescent brain development as follows:

Cognitive and intellectual development

  • More focus on self and outcomes
  • Increased interest in what happens in the world
  • Increased intellectual interests
  • Improved ability to find and solve problems and to reason and use abstract ideas

Sexuality and Sexual Behavior

  • Increased interest in establishing a sexual identity and to establish intimate relationships
  • Heightened awareness of sexual attraction
  • Experimentation with sexual feelings and relationships
  • Establishment of a sexual identity and becoming comfortable with one’s sexual identity
  • Gender identity issues emerge

Social and Emotional Development

  • Teens have a heightened focus on self and often feel that others are tuned into and watching them or are concerned with their thoughts, actions, and behaviors
  • Peer influence become more important than parent’s influence, on the surface
  • Teens may be reluctant and resistant to follow adults or authority figure’s instructions
  • They are on a quest for personal uniqueness and need to establish an identity different than their parents
  • Teens need to feel valued for contributions to everyday occurrences and not treated as though they are not capable of making a valuable contribution
  • Teens exhibit an increase risk taking and experimentation

Physical Development

  • There are rapid changes in height and weight
  • Sexual development with the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics (changes in genitalia, sweat glands, and body hair and fat distribution)
  • Teens are often awkward and clumsy related to rapid growth of skeleton and muscles
  • Further Brain development with proliferation of connections and pruning of unused networks
  • There is an alteration in sleep, eating patterns, and energy levels
Brain-Based Solutions and Strategies

Parenting Tips:

In recognition of the changes going on the adolescent brain, parents can decrease some of the conflict and communication issues by parenting their teen with their development in mind.

  • 1 Taming Emotions
    Teens will be emotional so do not over react to emotional conflict. Remember, your teen’s emotional centers’ center’s development precedes that the development of the logical center. If the decision is important, go with your prefrontal cortex decision rather than be swayed by an emotional teen that can’t see the logic of your decision.
  • 2 Empathy
    Teens have feelings too. Take time to find out how what your teen is feeling. Empathy for their situation is a chance to build a strong emotional connection.
  • 3 Experience
    The brain wires what it experiences and learns. The teen brain is pruning away abilities that are not being used. If you want your teen to be kind, considerate, and thoughtful, these are the qualities that must be exhibited to the teen’s brain.
  • 4 Nurture Promise
    Intellectual abilities also must be nurtured with opportunities to fail and succeed. Failure is not your teens’ worst enemy but the lack of a healthy response to it will be more detrimental in the long run. Do not be so quick to rush in and rescue your child facing a difficult problem. Check in and encourage them along the way to making their decision.
  • 5 Supportive Relationships
    Support and encourage your teen to seek mentoring and internship opportunities around personal interests. This builds self-esteem and confidence in their abilities. Always investigate any adult/teen relationship that your teen is engaged in whether it is a coach, teacher, or other “trusted adults.” Remember the more emotionally focused teen brain may not pick up on unhealthy motives by others. Make it clear to your teen that you will believe them no matter who is involved if they express uneasiness with a relationship.
  • 6 Establish Trust
    Trust the love and connection you have already established with your teen. Although there may be times when you feel that your teen has forgotten what they have been taught, most of the time those values resurface as the turmoil of adolescence subsides. Keep the connection and let your teen know that you will be there unconditionally. You love them even though you may not approve of all of their choices or actions.
  • 7 Collaborate
    Don’t be afraid to collaborate with other parents when you are uncertain about what to say or do. Teens consult their peers for support and so should parents. There is wisdom and support in speaking with other parents with teens going through the same stages. Consult an expert such as your pediatrician or therapist, if needed.
  • 8 Miss Takes
    Let your teen experience how you deal with making mistakes or misses before the learning takes (miss takes). Mistakes are a part of learning and should be used as tools to improve, not situations to avoid, hide, or be untruthful about. Parents make mistakes and so do teens. Letting your teen in on how you deal with mistakes will be the most helpful information you can give them.
  • 9 Being Unique
    Parents are unique and so are teens. Expect the unexpected and be aware that your ideas, hopes, and dreams may not be in synch with your teen. Different clothing, hair styles, vocabulary are ways teens try on new roles in search of their identity. They will be embracing the future with members of their birth cohort so dressing and behaving like peers is more important than dressing like parents.
  • 10 Celebrate Your Teen’s Abilities
    Enjoy the incredible spirit and creativity of your teen. The same developmental changes that cause you angst, are the same processes that give us great inventions and solutions to problems that older adults could never anticipate. Think about some of the greatest inventions of the last few years and realize that many of them were done by adolescents who dared to think that they could do something different and did.
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