Most people are aware or at very least can remember their own teenage years and know that this period of time is a HUGH time of change. One of the reasons is the massive amount of change that goes on inside of the teenage brain. Our brains continue to change throughout our lifespan, but never as much as during these years. The teenage brain is under massive influence of new hormonal messages as well as the overwhelming need to have new experiences. These changes start to reshape and reconstructed the brain and a period of PRUNING occurs which is a scientific term that means some pathways are closed down and some are rerouted and reconnected to other destinations. As with anything massive change there is bound to be issues with things not running smoothl!! We are now starting to understand why there is a change in personality and the basic stability of our child because the new perspectives (pathways) and reactions are flying left right and centre. So, it is always important to bear in mind amongst the teenage chaos years that they are still in a developmental stage of their life and this stage affects the rest of their lives. Those experiences and current needs are shaping the pruning and sprouting process in the brain. Let’s look at what to expect from my humble experience.
1. EXPLOSION OF NEURAL PATHWAYS - Right before puberty the brain is blossoming and there is an overabundance of neuronal connections, so this now becomes a critical period of development. This structural reorganization is thought to continue until the age of 25, which is probably just as well given some of the experimental experiences they get up to eg drinking to excess, drugs etc.
2. PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT - The most obvious is the awkward growth spurt, and physical changes that occur. It sometimes looks like teenagers themselves cannot control their bodies, becoming clumsy and not realising their new found strength. Puberty is the beginning of major changes in the limbic system, meaning among other things there is a change in the circadian rhythms (which are physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a roughly 24 hour cycle) this looks like the teen sleeping in and going to bed later. Which means they start to rack up sleep debt!!! This is really bad because sleep is thought to help reorganise the teenage brain. As we all know sleep deprivation leads to an exacerbation in moodiness and cloudy decision-making!! The hormone changes at puberty have a huge affect on the brain, one of which is to spur the production of more receptors for oxytocin, (bonding hormone). This may result in an increased level of sensitivity and leading to feelings self-consciousness, making an adolescent truly feel like everyone is watching them. This may make a teen seem self-centered (and in their defence, they do have a lot going on).
3. IDENTITY – forming and storming their identity - Teens have this overwhelming urge to figure out who they are and what they believe and stand for. This is often formed through their peers who become VERY important throughout this stage. They will experiment and work out with the different groups what they do and don’t like. Parent s and other role models play a role too.
4. NEW THINKING SKILLS – As mentioned now we have lots more brain development to access, so it will start to interconnect an gain more processing power. So they START ..not there 100% yet ..to access more complex decision making skill. So for awhile this does not always work out for them. Based on the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to: #Act on impulse, #misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, #get into accidents of all kinds, #get involved in fights, #engage in dangerous or risky behaviour. AND LESS likely to: #think before they act, #pause to consider the consequences of their actions, #change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviours. Which leads us to - DECISION MAKING PROCESS! – The teenagers newly found emotions and brain development tend to affect their decision making processes. This will mean that their decisions can be overly influenced by their emotional part of the brain (limbic system) rather than our more rational prefrontal cortex. This will often leave a lot of adults around them going…’what the!’ as they will do silly things like drive too fast, drink and drive, punch walls/jump off high things and hurt themselves, when they clearly know better. Basically cause and effect is hindered, as the teenage brains is simply put wired to seek reward making them vulnerable to engaging in risky behaviours. According to many researches by late adolescence, say 17 years on, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and long-term perspective taking is thought to help them reign in some of the behaviour they were tempted by in middle adolescence. PHEW!
5. SOCIAL – As mention we have this Hugh amount of brain development and skills which the teenager is still trying to figure out how to work with. I like the analogy of when you get a new cadet, you kind of just experiment with it until you figure it out… well that’s our teenagers in a nutshell!! This is why teenagers need to experiment with new situations, friendships and challenge pretty much everything. In most cases teenagers will try this out with their parents (as it’s a safe environment – meaning you will love them anyway, most of the time!) and NOW we have parent child conflict to add to our mix of chaos. Conflict becomes like an experimental ‘self expression’ if you will, this is even more complicated by the issue of the ‘Ego Centric Brain’ meaning it can be difficult to understanding another’s point of view. again parent child conflict! So as hard as this might be to believe this behaviour is not actually a personal thing. Keep in mind that we need to be the bigger, stronger and wiser person, so as to help them to stay calm, listen and basically be good role model. We need to show them HOW we want them to behave. They need to learn and practice how to develop those underdeveloped abilities. Until these areas are fully developed there is the possibility of them misreading teachers, parents and others. Just a little word to the wise - The more you yell at a teen, the worse they will likely behave, often not matter how careful you are there is always the possibility that it will end in tears or anger because they will have misunderstood what you have said, … Its tough, dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.
6. INDIVIDUATION - One of the jobs of a teenager is to start to separate from their family and establish some autonomy, both emotionally, physically and financially. Don’t worry just yet because they still need their parents to provide them with the well needed stability and structure. So even when your 15/16yo is trying to act like an adult and do adult things if you treat them as an adult you may be setting them up unfairly for failure in the future. They still need you even if they say they don’t. One of the BEST ways to parent your teen, other than being reliable, predictable and a good listener, is to be a good role model, especially when dealing with stress and other tough life events. The teen is trying really hard at this stage to figure our their own way of coping and they are always watching you. "It is the first time they are seeing themselves in the world," meaning their greater autonomy has opened their eyes to what lies beyond their families and schools. They are asking themselves, for perhaps the first time: What kind of person do I want to be and what type of place do I want the world to be?
Our job as parents is to help them explore the questions, rather than give them answers.