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
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How You Respond Can Influence Your Teen’s Behavior

Think back to when you first brought your baby home. There you sat, fully responsible for the livelihood of this child. You may have felt exhausted, or even a little overwhelmed by all that had changed. Yet, you loved this baby more than anything in the world and very quickly realized how much he/she enriched your life. I remember people calling my house, saying “What are you up to?” Often, my reply was “Just sitting here watching my baby sleep” I thought to myself, who would have believed that I could just sit and watch someone sleep for hours at a time!”

The following video is a profound illustration of the importance of parent-child interactions, and the impact that our responses can have on the actions and behaviors of our children. While this video shows a mom and her infant, there is an important message to parents of teens;  how we respond to our teen influences their behavior.

As parents, we try to do all we can to nurture and provide for our baby’s needs. When they smile at us, we smile back. When they cry, we try to sooth them. We play, touch, laugh, coo, feed, clean, rock, and tickle them. These interactions play a very important role in both their social-emotional development, and their attachment to their parent. It is through these interactions that they begin developing a relationship with you. And, it is through that relationship that they develop patterns that guide their perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and expectations in relationships they will have as teens.

We have very different interactions with teens.  We typically don’t coo, tickle toes, or rock teens, but they still need us to respond to them in a way that connects and builds relationship. And just like the infant in this video, teens may pull away, act out, or cry for help when we don’t pay attention and respond to their needs. They simply act out and cry for help in different ways. In fact, psychologists suggest that even rule breaking or delinquent behavior is often a wake up call for families that their teen needs something that he/she is not getting.

The following tips can help you pay attention and respond to your teen in a way that strengthens your relationship and prepares him/her to have good relationships with others:

  • Pay close attention to their emotions.  They will not be as transparent as infants. Give them lots of opportunity and room to talk about how they are feeling.
  • Listen with an open mind. Make a big effort to understand where they are coming from, even when you feel differently.
  • Understand that adults tend to use logic, while teens use emotion to explain their behavior. Often times, you must connect with your teen on an emotion level before they can even hear your logic.
  • Learn to identify the cues they use to show you that they need you. For example: While a baby may shriek to engage you, a teen may withdraw, play basketball, or draw a bath.
  • Realize that teens may not see or understand their own behavior. Help them to recognize what they are feeling and thinking by making observations and asking gentle questions like: “You look sad. Is everything ok?” or “I imagine you feel overwhelmed with everything that is due at school this week.”
  • Listen without trying to solve things for them.  It can be helpful to ask permission when you really want to offer your advice: “Can I share with you what has worked for me?” or “I have some thoughts about that. Would you like to hear them?”
  • Be mindful of your body language. Just like the mom showing no expression in the video induced a desperate response for her infant, your body language will communicate how you are hearing your teen. Showing sincere interests and not overreacting communicates trust that they can keep talking.
  • Show empathy. This demonstrates understanding and normalizes their feelings. Teens can feel guilt and/or shame when they feel like the only person in the world to experience something or feel a certain way.

Happy Parenting!