The teen years are challenging! (Insight of the week!) They are challenging for both parents and teens — although for different reasons. For both it is helpful to better understand what is going on in the teen brain with the onset of puberty. Puberty opens the door to a significant new stage of evolving life for teenagers and the parents who try to cope with these changes.
There is a fascinating article in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic. I encourage you to read it. I will try to share some of the more significant aspects, as well as some hints for parents to deal most effectively with these changing earth forms in your home.
Adolescence has been studied by many to try and understand why such significant change and turmoil takes place during this phase of life. Freud called this period “an expression of torturous psychosexual conflict." Erickson stated it to be the “most tumultuous of life’s several identity crises."
The advent of brain imaging has brought forth new understanding of what is going on in the teen brain. It is able to reveal its physical development and patterns of activity. These images have shown that human brain undergoes a massive reorganization between the 12th and 25th years. It doesn’t really grow that much during this period for the brain is actually 90 per cent of its full size by the age of six. It is the remodeling, resembling a network, and wiring upgrade that is being addressed here. I could bore you with the science of these changes by talking about axons, neurons, myelin, dendrites but I don’t think that is of your interest.
More interesting is what brain imaging shows about how the teen brain functions as compared to the adult brain. For example teens make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focused than do adults. This is hardly news BUT it does explain why teens do not have the capacity that adults do to function better in these areas. Perhaps we sometimes expect too much from teens when in fact their brain is not capable of doing certain things. Parents need to know what their teens’ capacities are in every aspect before asking them to do certain things.
As the teen brain matures developing richer networks and faster connections their executive region becomes more effective and consistent. While this process is taking place they have what Vassar psychologist, Abigail Baird, calls neural gawkiness — an equivalent to the physical awkwardness that teens sometimes display while mastering their developing bodies. This slow and uneven development of the teenage brain often is reflected in excess drama, angst, idiocy, impulsiveness, dangerous activity, selfishness, recklessness, sensation seeking … . You can probably add a few more dysfunctional behaviors emanating from the teenage brain, your kids or yourself when you were in that stage.
Excitement, novelty, risk, and peer relationships are normative behaviors for most teens. As they move away from dependence on parents and seek both independence and closer relationship with their peers they send inconsistent messages to parents. “Leave me alone” and “I need you” both exist within the evolving teen brain.
Parents need to keep loving their kids, offering nurturance, security, reasonable age related expectations and consequences while finding the balance point between helping and not hindering the kids’ growth. Staying engaged without intruding or abandoning kids that are inconsistent is not easy, but giving your best usually results in the outcome desired — that your kids turn out to be as special as you are — perhaps even better!!