The Teen Brain

The Teen Brain

Warning: Your Child Is Under Construction

By Susan Cowan Morse

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m not sure what happened to me while I was sleeping but when I woke up this morning my jeans were way too short. Next, horror of all horrors, I looked in the mirror and noticed a huge pimple right on the tip of my nose that wasn’t there yesterday. Sorry Mom, but I used most of your concealer trying to cover it up. And I was so upset about it that I forgot to brush my teeth. Later, in the kitchen when I reached for the orange juice, my hand hit your coffee cup and knocked it over, spilling hot coffee all over my homework papers and the cat. More bad news. You aren’t going to believe this but I tripped and fell in front of everyone walking out of school yesterday, and, well yeah, those brand new jeans I had been dying for that you finally bought me are now ruined. Oh, and Dad, when I was looking for a hammer in the toolbox, somehow the container of nails fell out in the sand. I tried to put them back but there is also a lot of dirt in there now. I am really sorry, Mom and Dad. I’m not sure what’s happening but ever since my 13th birthday last month I feel like a walking disaster zone.

With love,

Your Son/Daughter

If you are the parent of an adolescent this story rings true for you. If you will be the parent of an adolescent, take this as fair warning! The onset of puberty, which occurs around age 12 to 13 in most children, is the beginning of a tumultuous time in an individual’s life. You might want to put a “WARNING: Under Construction” sign on his/her bedroom door to remind you of this.

The outward signs of puberty are obvious to any parent and to the young person. Legs and arms grow long overnight, hands and feet expand almost exponentially, and changes in the skin and hair require new attention. However, these outward changes are just a small indicator of the significant growth occurring in your child’s brain. It is the neurodevelopment during adolescence that is a major source of frustration for parents, teens, and between parents and their teens.

What Is Happening in that Brain?

According to neuroscientist Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health, adolescence is “the most tumultuous time of brain development since coming out of the womb.” After more than 20 years of research on the living human brain with technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we know so much more about the development and functioning of brain. According to latest research, two things we know are that:

1) Teen brains process emotional information differently than adult brains.

2) Several major areas of the brain grow and develop significantly during adolescence.

A typical teen’s brain does not have a strong connection between the reasoning part of the brain and the primitive emotional part of the brain. The first is called the frontal lobe and is located right behind the forehead. The latter is called the amygdala and is situated deep in the brain. It is about the size and shape of an almond. This is why your teen may be overly dramatic and moody. Have you ever asked your teenager, “What were you thinking?” and received a blank stare in return. Very likely, the answer is “I wasn’t thinking,” and rightly so. Until that connection between the frontal lobe and the amygdala develops, your teenager is reacting from an emotional part of the brain without thinking about consequences and without rational thought.

Not only must the connection between the two develop, but the frontal lobe itself must develop. Research shows that it matures more slowly than other areas of the teen brain. This area behind the eyes is responsible for planning, organizing, rational thinking, strategizing, pacing, impulse control and more. Around age 11, this area goes through a growth spurt. Then over the teen years, the body “prunes” this region and organizes the new neural connections. While this is happening your teen may be just as frustrated as you are. He may not be ready to meet the demands of an increasingly difficult curriculum. She might feel overwhelmed with managing demands of home life, academics and a social life. Constant texting and Internet surfing just weigh more heavily on this already taxed but immature region of the brain.

Building Stronger Connections

Your teen’s brain is also busy building stronger connections in two other very important areas: the corpus callosum and the cerebellum.

A super highway between the right hemisphere and left hemisphere, the corpus callosum allows for the constant sharing of information back and forth. This allows us to integrate what we hear, what we see, what we say, what we smell and taste. Also, on one side we formulate a big picture plan while on the other we break it down into a logical step-by-step approach. Teens can find it quite frustrating in school when they are struggling to “show their work” in algebra, to formulate a plan for a major project, or to understand the global concepts across the decades in U.S. history. But this might not be anywhere near as humiliating and crucial to your teen as the consequences of a developing cerebellum.

Located at the rear base of the brain, the cerebellum is the center of coordination and balance. Remember those long legs, the spilled coffee and the tipped over toolbox that the letter writer spoke of? Imagine reaching for a cup of juice with a hand that is even just an eighth of an inch bigger all the way around! During puberty, the body parts grow almost exponentially overnight, yet it takes the brain a little longer to catch up. The cerebellum is still trying to navigate the smaller hand. Imagine thinking you have a flyswatter in your hand but you really have a tennis racquet. When you swat the flies you are going to cause a lot more damage than just the possible death of an annoying bug! This is why your growing teen may spill, trip, bump, crash, drop, break and innocently level his or her surroundings. This is also why your teen may have a new difficulty in sports. For instance, your daughter may have been a star soccer player up to 7th grade. Then in 8th grade she begins to struggle with skills that she had previously mastered.

How Long Will This Last?

Be patient. Research shows that girls’ brains mature into adult brains between the ages of 21 to 23. For those of you with boys, wait a little longer. Their brains reach maturity between the ages of 23 and 25. In the meantime, here’s what you can do to support your teen.

First and foremost, understand that your teen’s brain is a major construction zone. With that in mind, I suggest you practice balancing your expectations with their abilities. But, beware; their abilities are ever changing so stay on your toes! If you see your teen struggling in school, seek help from a guidance counselor, mental health counselor, tutor or learning center. He or she may simply need some support until brain development catches up.

Most importantly, put the time, effort and energy into maintaining a solid relationship with your teen. Overwhelmingly, experts agree that a good relationship with parents is the most crucial factor in a teen’s successful development. Oddly enough, when your teen pushes you away, he or she really wants your attention and needs to know that you care. If you are struggling to communicate with your teen, seek help from a trusted source right away.

Finally, adopt a good sense of humor. When you see coffee all over the cat, it might be best to laugh with your teen. When you open the toolbox to find dirt mixed in with your nails, chuckle and think of the times that you broke your dad’s tools. And when your teen, boy or girl, uses up your entire tube of concealer trying to hide that North Star on his or her nose, just go to the pharmacy and buy several more tubes. He or she will need them before puberty is over!

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