Understanding the Adolescent Brain
by Ardel S. Payne, MFT, Ph.D.
It is common for parents to contemplate their child’s adolescence with fear and trepidation. What happened to my sweet girl or my cooperative boy? To be fair, I think some of the “trepidation” is based on cultural stereotypes of teen behavior, so parents expect that it will be a difficult time in their relationship with their teen. They either back off from the relationship or their fears prompt them to be over-controlling. But understanding this developmental stage and, in particular, the changes that are taking place in their brains, can help us to know how to navigate this period. Socially, they are leaving childhood behind, but not yet fully adults. They are forming strong connections with their peers and others, away from the family unit. Their minds are jumping into “formal operations,” allowing them to hold more complex thoughts. Issues such as prejudice and justice are being felt either personally or as ideals. But what else may be going on in their adolescent brains? Lots of change.
We now know that the brain is undergoing a thorough reconstruction during this period. Changes in connectivity and mylenation that pave the way for a fully mature brain means that teens are left with a less than consistent capacity for an integrated brain and coherent mind, just at the time they are trying to function more independently. To adults they can seem changeable, or worse, erratic. Reasonable one day, moody and emotional the next. Researcher Jay Giedd used MRI scans to discover that at the beginning of puberty (age 11 for girls, age 12 for boys) there is a genetically triggered burst of overproduction, creating a forest of new dendrites and synapses in several regions of the brain, providing the opportunity for billions of new connections. This burst of growth is followed by a dramatic decrease in the number of synaptic connections (called pruning), a process that proceeds until the mid 20s. The teenage brain loses about 7 to 10% of its gray matter. This pruning gradually creates a more efficient, better integrated brain. However, it also is true that during this period we may see some mental and emotional disorganization, followed by a gradual emergence of a more coherent mind and regulated relationships.
This burst of new growth may also signal a period of rapid learning, of hightened neuroplasticity (brain change), making the quality of the teen’s environment at the outset of adolescence crucial, since we know what is genetically awakened is then shaped by experience. Another reason why it is not a good idea to leave them to relate solely with other teenage brains.
Why might these changes in the brain need to take place at this stage of development? Three social transitions that are taking place are the gradual moving away from the family of origin; establishing an identity and peer group connection; and, eventually, the creation of a new family unit – all changes that require reorganization and integration into new sets of attachment relationships. The brain needs to be plastic to develop these new relationships, a new self-image and place in society.
What do adolescents need from us? As parents, they need you just as much as in their younger years, but in different ways. Instead of always wanting guidance, they respond to receiving respect for their ability to find solutions. Asking questions like “What do you think might happen if you…?” encourages them to develop the capacity for flexible thinking and choosing the wisest alternative. Neither a hands-off approach or overly rigid, this “coming alongside” is based on maintaining connection with your teenager and fostering those neural connections between feeling, impulse, and rational logical thought that, hopefully, you can provide!
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