THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN
(Yes, there is one!)
“A teenager’s brain is still unfolding. Like its owner, it seeks its way, reaching here,
stumbling there, pushing out and pulling back. Just as the Chinese symbol for change means both peril and possibility, the teenage brain, too, holds both.”
(B. Strauch, The Primal Teen, 2003)
The world has been trying to make sense of adolescence for centuries - even Aristotle had his theories. A longstanding and widely accepted belief was that most teenage behaviour and thinking could be attributed to their genes or raging hormones, and that their brains were basically fully developed. Not so! It is now a known fact that there is profound growth occurring in the brain during adolescence, and that genetics and hormones are only part of the picture. Through the use of special brain-scanning machines such as MRI’s (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), groundbreaking research has occurred over the last twenty-five years. For the first time, neuroscientists have been able to get a clearer picture of how the teenage brain works and develops.
Renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Jay Giedd, from the National Institutes of Health, has spent the last decade scanning and rescanning the brains of hundreds of healthy children and teens. This research has produced ‘extraordinary’ results. He and other scientists have found that the teenage brain is definitely “a work in progress”. And, although many teens look like adults, their brains are clearly NOT fully developed and won’t be until their 20’s. Teenagers cannot act like adults because they don’t think like adults. They’re not supposed to! Their brains are still ‘under construction’.
One of the most significant and studied aspects of the teenage brain has been the front area of the brain that sits behind the forehead, called “the frontal cortex”. This area of the brain is responsible for helping with planning, decision-making, problem-solving, controlling impulses and abstract thought. During this time, teens also develop a new level of understanding and compassion for others, yet continue to be what one researcher described as “breathtakingly self-involved”. Teenagers start to be able to think in new ways. As a result, they may become more critical of parents as they idealize this new world in which they find themselves. At the same time that this intellectual growth is occurring, teens may also be choosing risky behaviours without the ability to anticipate the outcome of their choices. Throughout history, teenagers have possessed this attraction for risk-taking, often unable to see the consequences of their actions. It is now understood that this risk-taking behaviour results from the immaturity of the teenager frontal cortex – “its’ not their fault – it’s their brain’s!”
Knowing that the teenage brain is naturally in a state of turmoil and undergoing substantial growth and change, the high school years, bring new perspectives and insight into much of what parents experience in day-to-day life with their teenagers. The research shows that adolescents think differently than adults do, so as parents we need to adjust our expectations and how we relate to our teens. Below are several of the key recommendations for parents which have come out of the current research and literature on the Adolescent Brain.
Notes for Parents:
• Research on the adolescent brain suggests that parents may sometimes need to act as their teen’s “frontal cortex” or a back-up problem solver. This means setting limits and boundaries to minimize potential long-term or serious consequences of impulsive behaviours teens may engage in, such as drinking or experimenting with drugs. If we know, from the research, that teenage brains are not yet hardwired to be able to see the consequences of their actions, as parents we need to step in and provide that insight.
• Expect some risk-taking behaviour – that way you can plan ahead for it. Risks teens take could mean getting up in front of classmates to present a paper, or asking a girl out to a movie, or dressing in a new way. Whatever the risk is, know that researchers suggest this is a natural, inevitable and necessary part of the maturing process of the adolescent brain. Risks teens take are not always serious or life-changing, but they can be. As parents we need to stay involved in our teen’s lives. They need this now, perhaps more than ever before!
• Contrary to popular belief, teenagers actually want and need adult guidance when it comes to important life decisions. Though teens may challenge or reject parental advice, researchers say “Don’t walk away!” Teens want to make as many choices as they can on their own, but still need parents input, support, and advice.
• As parents, our role is to guide our teen and act as a role model for them. Respecting and encouraging their need for autonomy is important. Teens need structure and want independence. Have discussions with your teen about issues and/or concerns. Decision-making and problem-solving together is necessary at this time in your teen’s life! Their developing brains are ready for this relationship, and need the experience and practice on their way to adulthood.
“The transition from childhood brain to the adolescent brain
is like paving a gravel road with asphalt; teens are on their
way to becoming faster, sleeker thinking machines.”