Inside the Teenager's Brain
"Neurobiologically speaking, the adolescent brain is poised for impulsivity and thrill seeking...The brakes, or the ability to contextualize certain pleasures and to appraise the relevant risks, is simply not hard wired yet," noted Nadal-Vicens, M.D., Ph.D. and Dr. Gene Beresin in their blog, "The Adolescent Brain: Why Executive Functioning in Teens Is A Challenge."
Areas of the brain develop at different rates. Generally, the developmental process is from the back of the brain to the front. In an interview, by Frontline, with Dr. Jay Giedd from the National Institute of Mental Health, I learned most of the brain structure is laid down at 5 or 6 years of age. But first, there is a pruning of over-produced brain cells and over-produced connections between brain cells around age three. Then, there is a period of growth in the prefrontal cortex that begins in puberty with a second pruning beginning in adolescence.
The area in the front of the brain, right behind the forehead, is the prefrontal cortex. This is a part of the brain that grows during pre-teen years, but during adolescence, it is pruned back --trimmed of excess cells or unused connections. It is a critical area of the brain where the executive functioning skills are located.
Executive Functioning Skills
Executive functioning skills are the skill used in self-management; to manage your emotions and impulses, plan your time, set and achieve your personal and professional goals. While every child differs, executive functioning skills are generally still emerging and not fully developed until adulthood.
In 2013, Samantha Olson wrote an article, "Men Mature After Women- 11 Years After, To Be Exact- A British Study Reveals." The article about a study commissioned by Nickelodeon UK, that found “… the average man doesn’t reach full emotional maturity until age 43, while women mature by the age 32.”
While this extreme delay in maturity may be true for some people, her article also noted “magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have made it possible to watch the rate at which the prefrontal cortex of the brain matures and have discovered the male brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25. Meanwhile, women experience maturity rate of 21 years-old.”
Although the prefrontal cortex is still developing in teenagers, Molly Edmonds noted in her article, "Are Teenage Brains Really Different from Adult Brains", the nucleus accumbens, is well developed in a teenager’s brain. The nucleus accumbens is an area located in the midbrain that controls the release of dopamine.
Dopamine helps regulate emotional responses. Daniel Seigel in his article in the Atlantic, "Dopamine and Teenage Logic," stated, “starting in early adolescents and peaking midway through, this enhanced dopamine release causes adolescents to gravitate toward thrilling experiences and exhilarating sensations.”
Some scientists associate adolescence with a heightened need for thrills that explains the actions of some teenagers. Teenagers take more risks, especially when they are with their friends. As teenagers they often are aware of the risk of something bad happening, but they put more weight on the exciting potential benefits of their actions.
Cognitive Neuroscientist, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore notes in her TED talk that adolescents have an important drive to be independent from parents. It is a time when they are learning to navigate the social world and develop their identities. It is a continuing time of learning from their experiences-a preparation for adult roles. It is important to realize they are still not adult in terms of brain development or life experiences. Dr. Giedd states, “it is sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being developed…”
Daniel Seigel, clinical professor of psychiatry the UCLA School of Medicine ended his own article with these important words, " When we offer teens the support and guidance they need instead of just throwing up our hands and thinking we’re dealing with an “immature brain that simply needs to grow up,” or “raging hormones in need of taming,” we enable adolescents to develop vital new capacities that they can use to lead happier and healthier lives.”
Seven Tips For Communicating With Teenagers
Because the brain is still developing in teenagers and their executive functioning skills are not full developed; because adolescence is a time of greater independence and greater peer pressure; because it is a time of exploring new thrills, it is important to work hard at keeping the lines of communication open and frequent with your teenager. Of course, engaging with your children needs to start at a young age and follow through the teenage years.
Keeping open lines of communication allow you to model good communication skills and executive functioning skills. The following are some ways to keep the lines of communication open with your teenager.
- Ask for time together even if it is just a few minutes. They may not want to talk when you do but, one way to model scheduling and flexibility is to ask is "When would be a good time for us to get together and talk?" It will be important for you to keep the time you schedule with your child.
- Do not let too much time go between communicating.
- Ask open ended questions that need more than a yes or no to answer. "What happened today?" as opposed to "Did you have a good day?"
- Actively listen to their response. Let them know you are listening. That may mean repeating in your own words what you hear them saying to you or just saying, "I hear you".
- Show interest in their interests and friends. Ask questions about what you see them doing. Again, work on asking open-ended questions.
- Be aware of your tone of voice when speaking with them. Sometimes it is not what we say but how we say it that communicates the loudest.
- Acknowledge your mistakes. It is okay to apologize when you realize you have been curt, sarcastic, or failed to keep an appointment with them. Don't make a habit of having to apologize.
Nadal-Vicen, M. & Beresin, G. (February 6 2017). Beyond Smart. Retrieved from https://www.beyondbooksmart.com/executive-functioning-strategies-blog/the-adolescent-brain-why-executive-functioning-in-teens-is-a-challenge
PBS.org. (January 31, 2002). Frontline. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/giedd.html
Olson, S. (January 23, 2013). Medical Daily. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/men-mature-after-women-11-years-after-be-exact-british-study-reveals-246716
Edmonds, M. (n.d.). "Are teenage brains really different from adult brains." Retrieved from https://polarbearsophomoreenglish.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/are-teenage-brains-really-different-from-adult-brains-howstuffworks.pdf
Siegel, D. (January 24, 2014). The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/dopamine-and-teenage-logic/282895/
Blakemore, S. (September 17, 2012). TED. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/6zVS8HIPUng
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2018 Kathy Burton