The Adolescent Brain: What Stays? What Goes?

The brain is a powerful and mysterious thing!  It is functioning all of the time, day and night.   Certain parts of the brain even have multiple pathways to perform the same task……just in case something goes wrong.   There is an entire body of science looking exclusively at what our brain does when we are sleeping.  Another body of science examines how the brain changes during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. And another body of science looks at how brain activity is linked to social behavior.  In fact, one of the most fascinating developments in social science research is that we now have empirical evidence to explain actual behavior. For example, there is evidence that certain areas of the brain develop 3 years slower for those diagnosed with ADD than for those without ADD.

Some have said that we only use 10% of our brain.  This is a myth that was perpetuated out of the work of Karl Lashley in the 1920s and 1930s. He found that when sections of a rat’s brain were removed, the rat would relearn certain tasks.   Now we know that the removal of even small areas of the human brain can have devastating effects on behavior.  It is more likely that we use 100% of our brain, but only use portions of the brain at any given time.

As you can tell from the pictures above,  the number of synapses decrease between 6 and 14 years of age.  We call this the “Use It or Lose It” phenomenon.  Here’s the way it works.  At 1-year of age, the human brain has twice as many synapses than an adult brain. This is because the brain produces many more connections among cells than it will use.  The developmental task of the childhood years is to prune and select the most useful, or perhaps the most used neurons, synapses, and dendrites. This pruning continues into the early teen years. The important thing to notice is that more is not better.  Think about all the different ways you can go from one location in town to your house.  Maybe you tried several different paths when you first moved into your house. However, over time you learned that one route was faster than all the others. From that point on, you always used the same route. This is exactly what is going on in the teenage brain.  Overtime, your teen’s brain gets more efficient by establishing the best, most direct pathways and getting rid of the others.

There are other changes taking place in the teenage brain besides pruning. Research from Temple University highlights a few other ways the adolescent brain is changing:

  • Brain structure – certain parts of the brain are smaller in childhood than in adolescence, while others are larger.
  • Brain junction – adolescents use different parts of the brain than children to perform the same task.
  • Interconnections – various regions of the brain establish good communication with other regions. For example, the regions responsible for logical reasoning become better connected to those responsible for emotion. When this happens, the two regions talk to one another, allowing for better self-regulation.
  • Response to peers – peers activate the reward center of the adolescent brain. That means that teens are more likely to take risks in the presence of their friends, especially when they believe their friends will reward them for their choices. Interestingly, they have not found these same connections when teens interact with adults.

As a parent, you can expect your teen to:

  • Be inconsistent.  Outside of the fact that they are trying new things on, different parts of their brain are in different developmental stages.
  • Learn from his/her experiences.  Thinking ahead and controlling impulses improves by having exposure to a variety of experiences.  Discussion around why the world works the way it does is also important.
  • Need practice – Encourage your teen to plan, anticipate consequences, and regulate behavior.  Practice with your teen whenever you get a chance.  It will not work all the time, but it will work sometimes.  
  • Get emotional – Because the teenage brain floods the body with dopamine, teens often respond more quickly to things that spark emotions (like a friend in need) than they respond to less emotional things (like a math test). This doesn’t mean you should let your teen spend his/her entire evening with friends instead of studying.  However, it does highlight the importance of acknowledge your teen’s feelings and allowing him/her to express emotion. It is easier for teens to move onto other things after they have dealt with their emotions.
When you are trying to understand your teens choices, sit back and consider: What’s their experience? How would they know what their choices/options are in the present situation? What else is going on in my teen’s world that could be prompting a certain response  (ex. issues with schoolwork, friendships, activities, and/or family). As often as you can, take advantage of the opportunities you have to expand their understanding of the world.  Above all, hang in there…..they do get smarter over time!
Happy Parenting!
Shelly
Advertisements

What Where You Thinking?!?! Understanding the Prefrontal Cortex of the Teenage Brain

Have you ever asked your teen, “What were you thinking” and gotten the answer, “I wasn’t”  or “I don’t know.” During adolescence, the teenage brain is undergoing subtle, but dynamic changes, all in the midst of major physiological, psychological, and social transitions. Overall, theses changes lead to more sophisticated thinking skills and increases in their ability to process emotions.

The tricky part is that this development takes place during a time that is known for increased risk-taking behavior.  Because teens will try on new things to learn about themselves, it is important to help them understand how much their brain is changing and how they can take care of it during the teen years. This will help them to avoid things that can harm the brain, like substance use. It can also help them realize that they are not supposed to be able to think like an adult.  Part of a parent’s job is to create a space where their teen feels comfortable enough to ask for help .

We used to believe that the majority of development took place in the first five years of life.  Now we know that while the size of the brain does not change much after grade school, the brain matures considerably throughout adolescence and into their 20’s.   Understanding these changes for yourself can help you talk to your teen about what is going on, how the changes impact their thinking and decision-making, and how risks-taking behavior can have a negative impact on brain development.

Sagittal human brain with cortical regions del...
Image via Wikipedia

The prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex is thought to be the last area of the brain to be fully developed. This section of the brain controls much of a person’s logical thinking and decision-making.  Think of this as the CEO of the brain. It is in charge of a number of important skills like: controlling impulses, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, initiating appropriate behavior, changing behavior when situations change, organizing things, forming strategies and planning behavior, setting priorities, making decisions, showing empathy, having insight, and taking constructive feedback.

Kind of makes sense why teens can be so unpredictable, argumentative, and sensitive. It helps to explain behaviors that appear completely out of character.  I’ve heard several parents joke, “Where did my child go?” “When is he coming back?”, or “I think he’s been possessed by aliens!”  Still, all of this doesn’t mean that teens can’t make good decisions. It simply explains why teens can be smart enough to reason with their teachers and parents, formulate arguments for personal or political points of view, and build web sites, while still making poor decisions to skip school, cheat on a test, or drink and drive.

With all of these stills still developing, teens are susceptible to being impulsive, lacking plans, and making decisions without thinking through the possible consequences.  As a parent, you can:

  • Help them build these skills. Recognize that you play an important role in having teaching  your teen to stretch their thinking. Now, as much or more than any other time, they need constant conversations about life and how to handle different thoughts, feelings, and situations.
  • Help them “clean things up”, or make amends with those they have impacted when they make a mistake. Use mistakes as opportunity to talk about other ways to handle the situation.
  • Remember that you respond more intellectually to situations. Teens respond “from the gut” and need continued guidance while their brains are still developing.
  • Help them practice! Take an active role in thinking through different scenarios. Help them connect their gut feelings to the possible outcomes if they acted on them.  Teens may still have a more narrow view then of situations than you do. They need you to put small events into the larger context. You may also find it helpful to relate situations to past experiences (theirs, your own, a even a third party like a neighbor or movie character) so that it is more concrete.
  • Don’t assume your teen does things on purpose. Step back and consider that at the time, they might not have been able to respond any differently.
  • Do your best not to overreact to situations. Your teen needs to feel comfortable enough to talk to you about tough situations so that you get the opportunity to coach him/her. It is through this process that teens build pathways in the brain that will help them deal with similar situations in the future.  The brain will literally recognize, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” and will be able to pull from past experience.