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How Brain Science Can Help Parents Understand Teen Behaviour

Breakthroughs in neuroscience can help us better parent the teens in our lives. They may tower over us physically and be our intellectual match, but teenagers have brains that are very much a work in progress.  Brain science has taught us that the teen is primed to take risks, to seek out new situations, and to identify with peers over parents. A teenage brain processes information and situations differently from an adult brain, making teens capable of great things yet often lacking consistency in their decision making.  

All of this can make for an exciting but often rocky ride for both parent and child. And while adolescence has been described as a 'second infancy', bringing with it the hard work of guiding teenagers through often tumultuous and challenging years, this time also offers parents the joy of witnessing the extraordinary changes that their children will undergo - emotionally, socially and intellectually – as they grow into their adult selves.

The Prefrontal Cortex – Organisational Centre

With puberty striking earlier and the years spent in full time education stretching for many into the mid-twenties, we have created “a sort of extended dance mix of adolescence” explains Dr Abigail Baird, Associate Professor of Psychology at Vassar College, New York.  By around age 15 or 16, teens’ intellectual functioning may be equal to that of an adult, but their prefrontal cortex is still very much 'under construction'. Until the prefrontal cortex is fully developed it is unreasonable to expect teens to consistently demonstrate adult levels of organisational skills or decision making.  As the brain matures throughout late adolescence, teens become better able to think through decisions and their consequences.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for

•    Organising
•    Planning
•    Strategising
•    Initiating attention and stopping and starting and shifting attention  

The Cerebellum – Coordination Centre

The cerebellum, located at the back of the brain, experiences the most significant

growth during the adolescent years, and well into the early twenties. It has long been understood that the cerebellum is responsible for motor control and coordination but brain science now reveals it is also involved in higher order thinking, and in emotional and behavioural control.  Armed with this knowledge, parents may be more understanding if their teens’ moods or occasional lack of self-control seem out of step with their level of maturity in other areas. .

The Amygdala – Emotion Centre

Not only is the teen brain still ‘under construction’, we know that teens and adults process information using different parts of the brain.  In a study by Dr Jay Giedd, Chief of the Unit on Brain Imaging at the National Institute of Mental Health, MRIs revealed that when asked to analyse a facial expression, teens mostly used the amygdala – the amygdala is part of the brain that guides instinctual, or gut reactions - while the adults relied on the frontal cortex, which governs reasoning and planning. The study also showed that as teens mature, the centre of brain activity for this exercise shifts more toward their frontal cortex and away from the more instinctive response of the amygdala.

Knowing that teens often process information using different regions of the brain can help parents to respond with greater empathy to their teens’ often dramatic or intensely emotional behaviour. Parents can also help teens to reframe issues, drawing upon their own experiences and greater ability to see the bigger picture.  

Sculpting the Teenage Brain

As the teen brain becomes increasingly integrated, it is also undergoing a process of pruning:
       “Much like Michaelangelo’s David, you start out with a huge block of granite at the peak of puberty years. Then the art is created by removing pieces of the granite, and that is the way the brain also sculpts itself.”  explains Dr Giedd.

This process of pruning or specialisation means that the activities adolescents participate in will have an impact on the developing physical connections in their brains: “So if a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive,”  says Dr Giedd.

Late Adolescence and Self-Regulation

Neuroscientists Dustin Albert and Laurence Steinberg from Temple University have studied this late journey into adult life and emphasise that it is “this consolidation of self-regulatory competence … that … distinguishes the passage from adolescence to adulthood.”

During late adolescence the teen brain makes the largest gains in the area of mature self-regulation, which refers to the ability to:

•    Control impulses
•    Look to the future and think through consequences
•    Respond to and learn from rewards and punishments
•    Regulate emotions
•    Resist the influence of peers

Parents understandably become frustrated with their teens - who one day respond in a very adult manner to a situation and the next, bring to mind their former two-year-old selves. With the understanding that a teenager’s brain is not yet fully adult, parents are able to set boundaries with a keen awareness of their teen’s developing ability to self-regulate.

Brain Science – Teenage Risk Taking and Friendships

Learning to respect and understand the teenage brain can help parents come to terms with typical teen behaviour.  Dr Giedd believes that the adolescent brain has “been exquisitively forged by the forces of evolution of history to be a very good teen brain. It’s different to children, different to adults, but it’s not broken.”  (continues on next page)