As a parent of two children myself, I find it difficult to sift through the vast amounts of information regarding my children’s best interests at the same time that I am actively and daily caring for those best interests. Thankfully, as my children move into adolescence, this task is also part of my career and has been for fifteen years. With that in mind, I am beginning a series of web articles for our middle school page. This series follows my readings in the book Parenting the Teenage Brain by Sheryl Feinstein and allows busy parents a chance to hear some of what the experts are saying about adolescent development without reading the book cover to cover. We hope that you find this series beneficial and that it helps shed some light on current issues involving adolescents. So, here we go…
If someone had said years back that puberty was the least of a teenager’s problems, we may have thought they were crazy. Much of teenagers’ emotional, impulsive, and irrational behaviors were thought to be a result of raging hormones brought on by bodies going through the drastic changes of puberty. Now, due to technological advances and the ability to study healthy, normal, living teenage brains, researchers are finding that teenagers’ hormone levels are not all that terribly different than those of adults. In addition to puberty, the search for autonomy and separation, and the search for their own personal identity, there are other changes happening in the adolescent brain that have a greater impact on their behavior. Understanding the adolescent begins with understanding what is going on in their minds and bodies. Here are some of those changes that teachers and parents should be aware of:
During adolescence, teenagers overproduce dendrites and synaptic connections. Adolescents are learning new information at a rate matched only by their early childhood years. In fact, these processes are the exact same ones that happen in the brains of children just before birth and in the early childhood years. It is no coincidence that the volume of change they are going through can match the rate of toddler development, just with a very different set of skills they are learning.
The teenage brain then goes through the process of weeding out these synaptic connections that are deemed unnecessary, a “use it or lose it” system. Any connections that a teen does not regularly exercise and make use of will be removed in an effort to run more smoothly and efficiently. If a teen plays video games, these connections will be stronger. Likewise, if a teen reads often, these connections will strengthen.
This process, which is the development of fatty substance that insulates the neurons in the brain and allows them to communicate more quickly and effectively, happens next. This process occurs throughout adolescence allowing teens to become increasingly more organized and communicate verbally with increasing effectiveness. As your child progresses through adolescence, you may see ebbs and flows in their organization and communication and these will likely match their physical changes as well.
During the teenage years, adolescents rely on the amygdala, or emotional center of the brain, to interpret the information they receive. Adults use their frontal lobes to do the same task and therefore express themselves more logically and reflectively than the typical teenager. This excessive reliance on the emotional parts of the brain at times results in over-reactions on the part of the teenager or misunderstandings of the body and facial language of others. It is a good idea to ask your teen to fully consider a situation from all viewpoints or to assist them in determining if they accurately processed a situation they found upsetting. There is a decent possibility it was a misunderstanding stemming from this adolescent challenge.
Window of Opportunity
Teenagers are in a prime position to develop the skills of impulse control, relationships, and communication, if adults actively model and articulate these skills and if teens are given regular opportunities to practice these talents. Having trusted adults who are active member’s of your teen’s life can provide additional modeling and perspective for them while allowing them the autonomy to move a single step away from previous levels of parent direction.
Window of Sensitivity
Due to the extreme development of neural connections, learning pathways, and their link to personal experiences, teenagers are at a heightened risk of damage from chemicals, alcohol, drugs, and smoking. Addiction occurs more quickly at this time and teens are more resistant to recovery now and later in life as well. In upcoming articles, we will talk about some ways to encourage teens to make healthy choices, while still understanding their developmental challenges.
I hope you enjoyed this very brief, cursory glance at what is happening behind your adolescent’s sometimes, even often, furrowed brow. The next article in this series will focus on three main parenting styles and how they work in conjunction with the adolescent stage of development. Happy parenting!