A guide to understanding the mysteries of the teenage brain
"Boys may be shaving, and girls may be able to become pregnant, but research shows that not all parts of the teenage brain connect as they do in adulthood."
Has your sweet, loving, obedient child suddenly morphed into a surly, non-communicative alien? Are you wondering where you went wrong? You’re not alone.
The passage between childhood and adulthood is notoriously challenging, for teens who are striving for independence, and for parents who have to relinquish some control, while still being responsible for their children’s safety. It’s a tricky road to walk.
Understanding what’s happening to your child is the first step to navigating this life passage. The hormonal changes teens go through are obvious. Their bodies are maturing and for some young people these changes can cause confusion, embarrassment, or anxiety.
Parents need to affirm and encourage their children to feel good about themselves. While they adapt to their developing bodies, they’ll be very sensitive to teasing or criticism, so be kind and supportive.
It’s now known that the sleep hormone, melatonin, is released about two hours later in adolescents than in adults. It shifts back again eventually, but if your child is still struggling to get to sleep at 10pm, blame biology, not behaviour.
Teenagers need eight to nine hours of sleep at night, which is why it’s so hard for them to get up for school in the morning. Often, they haven’t had their necessary quota of hours and, as a result, may be grumpy and sleep deprived.
How teens are wired for risk and reward
Less obvious, but even more important to understand, is that the brain is only about 80% complete by adolescence. Boys may be shaving, and girls may be able to become pregnant, but research shows that not all parts of the teenage brain connect as they do in adulthood.
“The teenage brain is a puzzle awaiting completion,” explains Dr Frances Jensen, Chair of the Neurology Department at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.
“The teen years are an extraordinary time in brain development”, she says, “offering major advantages – sharp memory skills and a great capacity for learning – but there are some vulnerabilities, too, that society doesn’t fully appreciate.”
Teenagers are wired for risk-taking and novelty and reward-seeking. But the frontal and pre-frontal cortex, the parts of the brain responsible for executive functions, cause and effect, empathy and impulse control, aren’t fully connected until the mid–20s. This explains why an otherwise smart, capable teen can do something stupid in the moment. They lack the split-second decision-making ability that might warn them, for example, that it’s not a good idea to go swimming at midnight when they have been drinking.
“Teens are impressionable, which makes them absorb information easily. Their primary job is to learn, and studies suggest that their IQ scores increase in enriched environments,” says Jensen. But being so open also makes them susceptible to danger.
In her opinion, the digital invasion has resulted in the most overstimulated generation in history. Their heightened reward centres will respond to good marks at school, but will also keep them hooked to ‘likes’ on their phones and to the repetition of playing and winning digital games.
“The teen brain can get addicted harder, faster and for longer than an adult brain, with permanent damage in some cases,” she says. “But they’re also at an age of self-discovery and identity-seeking, and respond well to scientific facts and data. Give them information. Tell them stories about teens who made bad decisions and got into trouble. Arm them to make sensible choices.”
Help your teens to help themselves
Cape Town clinical psychologist, Dr Aneta Shaw, points out that teen rebellion, withdrawal, or a stubborn lack of communication is often the result of parents getting in the way, via preaching, knowing better, or just wanting to be protective.
“Teens are in a period of preparation towards integrated behaviour and realistic goal setting,” she says,” and a parent’s biggest role is to help them think things through and not think on their behalf.
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