I like teenagers. The adolescent psychology course I took in college changed the direction of my life. I loved it so much, I decided to become a teacher and have had a life-long fascination with the teen brain.
As a mom, I’ve heard many times about the crucial brain development of infants. Conventional wisdom held that our brains were mostly formed by age 6, but recently, brain researchers have discovered that, in fact, there is some dynamic growth around puberty. There are a billion places you can go to read more about this—The National Institute of Mental Health is a good start—but the gist is this:
Conventional wisdom held that our brains were mostly formed by age 6, but recently, brain researchers have discovered that, in fact, there is some dynamic growth around puberty.
The brain is series of structures that conduct electrochemical impulses. So you perceive something in one part of your brain (this stove is hot) and that sends a signal to another part of your brain to do something (move your hand!). These impulses are sent along pathways, kind of like travelling down a road. If your thoughts drive the same “road” over and over again, your brain makes it into a highway so the signal can get there faster. In puberty, your brain is quickly building highways and bulldozing over roads that never get used. It is literally like a construction zone.
One part particularly under construction is the prefrontal cortex area. It is a part of your brain that is involved in impulse control, long term planning, and risk assessment. And it isn’t as well connected in kids as adults. So while you, as an adult, would think jumping off of a roof would not be worth the risk, an adolescent may think the fun would vastly outweigh the risk.
Thinking about their brains in light of their biological development helps me be more patient, more understanding, and ultimately more amazed at the way they are growing.
Interestingly, one of the parts of the brain that is mostly formed in adolescence is the limbic system. I think of this as the opposite of the rational prefrontal cortex. It is the more emotional core, the thing that drives us recklessly forward–which is good. Being a teenager can be scary, and if you really understood all the risks you faced and didn’t have something pushing you out of the nest, we would all live in our parents’ basements.
I don’t mean to be overly reductive. This is brain science we’re talking about; it is complex and many factors are at play. However, there are some simple take away messages we should remember as we help kids navigate these tricky neurological waters.
1. Sleep is actually really, really important–for all stages of childhood, including adolescence. When the brain is at rest, it can generate these pathways. What makes this tricky is that some researchers have found the biological clock of teenagers shifts a little so they become night owls. Unfortunately for most kids, school starts really, really early. This makes it very hard to get enough sleep. But not impossible. Teach kids that sleeping is as important as eating right and using Clearasil.
2. Expect good decisions to happen more slowly. While the prefrontal cortex is still coming online, a teenager’s ability to make good decisions happens slowly. Think of it as wiring that isn’t quite connected. The electric impulse is trying to go from the light switch in the bedroom wall to the overhead light, but it is still routed through the kitchen. So it takes a little time.
The old conventional wisdom turns out to be true: “Stop and think before you act,” and, “Make the decision ahead of time and stick to that decision,” turn out to be very good pieces of advice.
So what does this mean? Does this mean your forgetful teenager shouldn’t be expected to pick up her wet towel off of the bathroom floor? Quite the opposite. It means that while we can understand why she keeps forgetting, we know that the only way to learn to make the right decisions is to practice–reinforce that pathway.
So what do you do when your kids are little and they can’t reach the sink? Get the proverbial step stools out to help kids make the right decisions. Set up reminders (hey you–pick up your towel!), expect some mistakes, and be patient.
3. Teach your kids to automate good decisions as much as possible, knowing that when emotion runs high (like when they get furious or excited or really nervous) the part of their brain that will be the loudest will be the limbic system (saying things like: “this seems fun—let’s do it a million times!”) and not the prefrontal cortex (who says things like: “let’s think through the options”). What I think is interesting about this is that old conventional wisdom turns out to be true: “Stop and think before you act,” and, “Make the decision ahead of time and stick to that decision,” turn out to be very good pieces of advice.
4. With their flexible and adapting brains, this is the perfect time to focus on something and get really good at it. Seriously, practice the piano, kids! Conversely, this is also a time when addictions can get a foothold. Addictions are essentially a learned behavior that is reinforced by the feel good chemicals it releases. The teen brain is excellent at learning things, so help it learn the right things. And make this biological fact transparent to kids.
5. Be sensible about screen time. Dr. Giedd, a prominent researcher at the National Institute of Health poses an interesting question in his paper “The Digital Revolution and Adolescent Brain Evolution.” He asks: “Might the availability of technologies that can persistently keep dopamine levels so high raise the threshold for what our brains deem rewarding in terms of relationships, studying, or working toward other long-term goals that may not have immediate reinforcements?”
Everyone knows that immediate, rewarding feeling of having someone “like” your photo or getting a response to your text. But could the teen brain get so used to these dopamine squirts that it just doesn’t feel the value of grappling with a math problem or wrestling an essay to the ground? Teaching our kids to balance immediate and long-term rewards seems very important.
Our brains don’t come with an owner’s manual, which is a real shame. And surely neuroscience cannot be reduced to “if/then” statements. But I think as mothers of teenagers and soon-to-be-teenagers, it’s worth thinking about their brains in light of their biological development. It helps me be more patient, more understanding, and ultimately more amazed at the way they are growing. I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
If you’re interested in learning more, here are some additional resources:
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