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Understanding the Teenage Brain
So much emphasis is placed on the first three years of your child’s life. Parent’s are constantly bombarded with information on how to best utilize these formative years of brain development. And it’s true; your child’s brain is rapidly developing, expanding, and learning in those first few years. However, second to those first years of intense brain development is the teen years. Major developmental changes are happening in your teen’s brain. Their brain is under constant reorganizing and restructuring.
So why is this important?
“Raging hormones” has long been the culprit for erratic, moody, and impulsive behaviour. But in recent years, research has indicated that the changing brain may play the larger part in our teens, often confusing, actions. Lisa Damour, a therapist, says that “The changes in your [teen’s] brain and the events that occur around [him/her] are more likely to shape [his/her] mood than the hormonal shifts occurring inside of [him/her].”
In their book “Your teenager is not crazy: Understanding your teen’s brain can make you a better parent.”, Clark and Clark explained that there are two main processes happening in the teenage brain: Pruning and Myelination.
This is the brain’s way of removing damaged, degraded, or unused neural pathways. By this process, the brain is able to work more efficiently. Pruning begins at the back of the brain, leaving the prefrontal cortex to be remodelled last.
This process is where the axon of each neuron is coated with myelin. By doing so, the brain is protecting the neurons — which is imperative if the nervous system is going to operate properly.
While these processes go through and remodel your teen’s brain, other parts are still being developed. Understanding these areas can help you understand some of your teen’s choices and behaviours.
Here’s what you need to know about these different areas:
The Limbic System:
This is the emotional centre of your teen’s brain. During development this area of the brain is highly stimulated, resulting in the intense highs and lows your teen may experience.
The Prefrontal Cortex:
The prefrontal cortex can be visualized as the ‘command centre’ of the brain. It’s responsible for things such as planning, judgement calls, making decisions, and self-regulation. Since pruning starts in the back of the brain, this part develops last. In fact, this part of the brain isn’t fully developed until the early twenties. Consequently, when teens are faced with their many major life decisions and many temptations, they may lack the brain capacity to fully realize the weight of their choices.
Nucleus Accumbens (NAc):
This is the part of the brain that processes things like pleasure, motivation, and reward. The way it primarily does this is through a release of dopamine — a neurotransmitter closely linked to pleasure. The baseline for dopamine in the teen brain is lower than in an adult brain, but the amount released during a pleasurable experience is much higher. This combination creates a stronger high and can often cause teens to seeks more thrilling experiences.
The Temporal Lobe:
The temporal lobe is responsible for high-level auditory processing and language. It undergoes significant pruning in the teen years and isn’t fully developed until late in the teen years. As a result, teens may struggle to express themselves adequately, they may experience confusion and have difficulty communicating with adults.
Creating a Strategy
So what can you do with this information? How can you take it, and use it to create a better parenting strategy that accommodates your teen’s changing brain?
Think of your parenting style in two dimensions: affection and control.
- Affection Dimension: Parents at one end are accepting, and child-centred. Parent’s at the other end are rejecting and parent centred.
- Control Dimension: Parents at one end are undemanding, and exert low control. Parent’s at the other end are demanding, and are highly controlling.
Research reveals that parents who are high in affection and control are most likely to have kids that are independent and confident. Whereas parents who are low in affection and high in control will often have children who are not independent or confident. Additionally, studies also showed that parents high in acceptance and low in control often had teens who were impulsive and not very responsible.
Now that you have a slightly better understanding of your teen’s brain, and your parenting style, here are some other ways you can help guide your teen:
1: Choose your battles wisely.
Do you really need to step in and help your child make that decision? When it comes to major life decisions, your guidance can be invaluable. However, if your teen wants to try a new experience or look, for example, try to let them do so without your influence.
2: Be compassionate.
You can’t excuse reckless behaviour — but you can try and understand where your kid is coming from. When your teen fails to use good judgement, try to help them guide them to identify better choices. Show them how those choices can lead to more desirable outcomes, and teach them how to weigh the pros and cons.
3: Don’t compare your teen to how they used to be.
Instead of complaining that your teen ‘used to tell you everything’ or they ‘used to be so social’ etc, focus on the positive. Try to call out the good things you see them do and tell them frequently. Your teen is experiencing major changes, and they might feel insecure — adding to their insecurities will only make things worse. If you wish to see a certain behaviour, positively reinforce it. For example, if you want your kid to be more open with you, actually listen to them when they tell you things, thank them for sharing, and let them know they can always come to you with anything — and that you won’t love them any less.
For every stage of raising a child comes a new set of challenges, fears, and rewards. You might feel overwhelmed by the challenges that come with a teenager, but with education, patience, and a lot of grace, you can help them navigate this difficult season. If you feel like you or your teen needs additional support, look into various organizations and licensed professionals that specializes in working with teenagers.