Whilst I am yet to embark on the teenage years with my own children, it is with frightening speed that these years will come bullocking with full force into the realms of our peaceful home. Only joking, of course it is not peaceful. But my work as a youth counsellor and my work as friend to many mums with teens, set me on a path to discover more about “the teenager”. This in turn led me look in depth at the development of the teenage brain as it coincides with the challenges of puberty and hormones. What we once blamed solely on these hormonal changes has been overshadowed by the work of scientists in looking at the biology of the human brain, and the changes that take place over the course of childhood, adolescents and right into early adulthood. A greater understanding of these changes will enable us to better understand the social, emotional and behavioural implications for our youth and make greater sense of the challenges that face the parent of the teenager, as well as the teenager themselves.
So here is a basic biology lesson of the human brain and why it is so important to the understanding of our teenagers:
- By the time a child is 6 years old, their brain is about 90 – 95% the size of an adults brain. This is only in size however, and from here the child’s brain must undertake enormous changes as it embarks on its journey to adulthood. Most of these changes however take place in adolescents or during the teenage years. With the developments in MRI technology and the ability to see accurate, living pictures of the molecular biology of the brain, scientists are able to give us a far greater understanding of exactly how this maturation of the brain takes place.
- During this adolescent phase of development, the brain undergoes a “pruning”. It keeps what it needs, discards what it doesn’t need, and as such a ”use it or lose It” principle applies.
- This “pruning” or refining, begins at the back of the brain during early childhood and makes its way to the front of the brain throughout a slow process that doesn’t finish until well into late adolescents and early adulthood.
- The back half of the brain is responsible for pleasure –seeking , rewards, gratification and risk-taking. The front half of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is responsible for problem-solving, the ability to control impulses and the ability to plan actions and foresee consequences. So now we are beginning to see why this back to front development is resulting in a gulf between the thought patterns and behaviours of our teenage youth. (In other words they are great at knowing what pleases them but not so refined at making the judgement to foresee possible consequences).
- Whilst the teenager waits for this front half of the brain to catch up with the back half, they rely instead on another part of the brain called the amagydale (not necessary to remember but just adds scientific weight to my argument). This part of the brain is responsible for emotion, impulse, aggression and instinctive behaviour. The teenage brain therefore appears to have an overactive accelerator but a pretty dodgy brake system!
Whilst some parents and their teenagers sail through the teenage years, there are many factors that can help determine this, including genes, personality, environment, family and friends, community and culture. The developments we are seeing with regard to the growing teenage brain however, are certainly helping us to better understand the changes and challenges that are taking place.
In some follow-up posts we will look at the implications this brain development has on the social and emotional development of our youth and ways in which we as parents can help steer ourselves and our children through these changes in a healthy, productive and amicable way.
So…all my teenage parents….what are some of the challenges you have faced parenting your children through these years? And would you/will you do anything differently if given the opportunity with other kids?