The Teenage Brain

What every Parent Should Know

What’s really going on inside your child’s head?

The Amazing, Tumultuous, Wild, Wonderful, Teenage Brain - Mindful

The Teenage Brain and Decision Making

Historically, adolescents were seen as miniature adults.  Then the role of hormones was seen as the major influence in adolescent moods and behaviors.  Now we know that the brain itself is responsible for a wide range of behaviors and experiences throughout adolescence.

Perhaps you’ve recognized some of these symptoms: difficulty planning, organizing and setting priorities; inability to foresee consequences; difficulty postponing gratification; poor impulse control; heightened emotional reactions and mood swings; exaggerated “black and white” thinking; difficulty interpreting or responding to social situations and challenges; high risk-taking behavior—and paradoxically—a fear of new situations and people; and difficulty gauging what others are thinking, feeling, or experiencing. 

This may sound like a laundry list of typical adolescent behavior—and in many ways it is.  These behaviors and experiences are related to a still developing and critically important area of the brain called the frontal lobes—particularly the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—located in the front of the brain just behind the forehead.  The frontal lobes are considered the “chief executive” of the brain, responsible for reasoning, judgment, motivation, impulse control, application of effective social skills, and overall coordination of the various subsystems in the brain to solve problems, relate to others, and negotiate one’s way in the world.

 At puberty, the brain undergoes a series of fairly profound growth spurts and transformations where the number of nerve cells and (more importantly) their connections alternately increase and decrease.  Periods of increased growth (called exuberance) are associated with times when adolescents are most capable of learning new information and skills.  This is also the time when the developing frontal lobes help to consolidate learning and experience in order to apply critical life skills and coping mechanisms.  Periods of decreased growth (called “pruning”) occur when the brain actually erases or modifies cells and connections that are not used.  Thus, neuroscientists are beginning to describe brain development based on the “use it or lose it” principle.

The recent developments in brain research have major implications for adolescent development.  If teenagers don’t learn and practice effective coping skills at this time, they may have difficulty ever getting them completely in the future.  And lack of exposure or practice is not the only threat: drug and alcohol use, media influences, and negative adult and peer role-modeling all have the potential to prevent or distort the development of executive functions and social skills.  Kids who use drugs, aggressive confrontation, passive avoidance, or any other ineffective coping skill run the risk of “locking in” (biologically!) that pattern of behavior, making it more difficult to either resist or unlearn these behavioral responses in the future.  

The solution is to provide teenagers with the opportunity to learn and practice effective coping strategies, especially when dealing with the most common adolescent issues: inclusion vs. exclusion, boredom, social/emotional coping skills, assertiveness and confrontation skills, ability to gauge others’ responses, and realistic self-appraisals.

One effective way to practice these coping skills is to provide opportunities for teenagers to “think through” problems, considering various alternatives and their likely outcomes.  Reasoning out different possibilities can “stretch” the brain (stimulating neural connections), leading to more efficient problem-solving skills. 

Adults (parents, teachers, counselors, etc.) often try to solve teenagers’ problems too quickly.  Sometimes, the best assistance for a teenager facing a problem is to ask them to identify the potential options and then assist them in considering the pros and cons of each of those options.  Not only does this lead to a resolution of the problem, it also gives the brain a workout that develops reasoning and decision-making skills for the future. 

“Parenting Tips”

Children need you to be their parent, not their friend.  Parents can be very close and friendly with their children, but it is always your right and responsibility to establish structure and set limits, even when these limits make you unpopular or “un-cool.”  If children don’t receive structure at home, they may one day get it from the police–or possibly never get it at all.

Set boundaries – kids always resist limits and rules, but they need them and (even though they may not admit it) really want them.  Often, adolescents push limits as a way of learning where the limits are.  Limits provide a basic sense of security and predictability for both kids and parents.

Rules and boundaries should be clear and consistent, and consequences should be predictable.

Rules and boundaries are more effectively accepted and internalized when kids are provided with clear explanations and allowed to discuss the reasons for rules and limits (even if they don’t initially agree with them).

Rules and boundaries can be amended when appropriate or necessary.  Responsible behavior should lead to greater freedom and trust; irresponsible behavior should lead to restrictions on freedom and more careful monitoring.  Help your child understand how their behavior essentially dictates how much freedom and autonomy they earn.

Initially saying “no” and then eventually giving in typically teaches children that relentless nagging will wear you down.  When kids don’t realize that “no means no,” it’s probably because it doesn’t.  

Know your child’s friends – many of our grandparents told us that they could know a person by the company he/she keeps, and they’re right.

Get to know the parents of your child’s friends – If your child is going to a party, make sure the party is supervised and that you’ve spoken directly to the parents who will be in charge.  Kids will sometimes say “if you call their parents you’ll embarrass me and I won’t go.”  If that’s the case, they’re better off not going.  Besides, you’ll be giving the other parents the message that it’s OK for them to call you.

Talk to your child.  Always.  Even when you think they’re not listening, they probably are.  If you think that giving the same message over and over is not getting through, remember that the messages they receive now are likely to be repeated by them to their children–so do it for the sake of your grandchildren.

One of the best times to talk to your child…while you’re driving in your car (a guaranteed captive audience).

If you want to know what’s going on in adolescent culture today and your child does not want to talk…try talking to their friends.  You might find that other children are much more likely to talk to you about adolescent issues in general (but don’t expect them to incriminate themselves).  By keeping the focus on general issues in adolescence, you will appear genuinely interested in their world–as opposed to investigating them or digging for private information about your child.

Rewarding positive behavior is preferable to punishing negative behavior.

Kids don’t come with an “owner’s manual,” but see this link on developmental assets to learn how to cultivate specific characteristics that correlate with health, responsibility and success.  Click HERE

If you discover alcohol, drugs or paraphernalia in your child’s room and they say it belongs to a friend, they’re most likely lying.

Never, ever, think that your child is not at risk.  ALL kids are at risk.

When you think your child has absolutely lost his/her mind, they’re probably perfectly normal (see link to “Yes, Your Teen IS Crazy”).

If you have any questions or concerns about your child, ASK.  Reach out to school counselors, other parents, etc.

Common Characteristics of Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Use or Abuse

Concerned you child could be using substances without your knowledge? Here are some common sign of drug and alcohol use or abuse to watch out for.

ILLICIT BEHAVIORS

  • Drug or alcohol use (this is not a mistake; denial often obscures the obvious signs)
  • Theft
  • Disappearance of possessions, money, clothes
  • Possession of drug-related paraphernalia
  • Possession of weapons
  • Drug- or alcohol-related posters, signs, tee shirts, etc.
  • Use of goldenseal or other OTC herbs

ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE

  • Marked drop in grades
  • Lack of concern about grades
  • Little or no investment in homework, studying, etc.
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Marked drop in classroom participation
  • General loss of interest in school
  • Excessive procrastination / avoidance
  • Frequent lates or cuts
  • Loss of interests in sports, activities, school events
  • Improved behavior and appearance of focus

DISRUPTIVE BEHAVIORS

  • Frequent lying, and excuses that are plausible but suspicious
  • Excessive sleeping or drifting
  • Defiance of rules
  • Verbal or physical abuse
  • Mood swings
  • Excessive talking
  • Non-communicative

SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

  • Change in friends
  • Change in hangouts
  • Unknown friends who avoid parents
  • Always out of the house with no particular destination
  • Secretive / suspicious phone conversations
  • Hang-up phone calls
  • Callers who refuse to identify themselves
  • Significantly older or younger acquaintances
  • Isolation
  • Argues that drug use is alright
  • Argues that teachers / parents don’t understand drug use
  • Lives day-to-day with no long term planning or commitments (apathetic)
  • Extreme avoidance of family / extended family functions
  • Use of street vocabulary
  • Demands / steals money from siblings, parents, friends, classmates