Parents Teenagers just don’t understand

“Duh!, Mom you just don’t ged id!” – Well actually you do, and they don’t.

By Mike Jackson

The Teenager perspective

Powerful technologies such as neuroimaging and advanced brainwave scanners have shown that adolescent brains undergo considerable structural change particularly in the prefrontal cortex during the teenage years (Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne. “Brain development during adolescence.” Education Review. Spring 2007).

The prefrontal cortex is involved in self-awareness and the ability to understand other peoples perspective which is why many young teenagers explore their own self-image (make-up, clothes and body art) as well as seeming insensitive to other people’s feelings and concerns. We also know that adolescents are particularly susceptible to influence by their peer groups and is why you see predominance of social sub-cultures such as Goths, Emos, Punks and any other trendy things we are out of touch with! This brain change also affects the decision making ability and trials have shown that adolescents are more prone to making riskier decisions when in a peer group, which probably accounts for the fact that most adolescents commit crimes with peers. Research has also started to show that although the brain is 95 percent its adult size at age six, the grey matter, or thinking part of the brain, continue to develop throughout childhood. In the frontal part of the brain, this development peaks around 11 in girls and 12 in boys which is roughly about the age of puberty and then the grey matter then starts to thin as excess connections are eliminated or pruned. Much research is now focussed around the postulation of the “Use it or lose it” principle, namely a premise that those connections that are used will survive and flourish and those that aren’t will wither and die.

So around the critical time of puberty the young teenager not only has hormones gushing through their system, but the brain functions are also being enhanced or reduced. All the life choices – sports, art, music or academia are there but start getting whittled away and we are left with the choices that uniquely define us as individuals. The ability to control risky behaviour is still under construction and the Nucleus Accumbens that seeks pleasure and reward is fairly well developed.

Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health in the USA, noted, “This radical behaviour is also due to the brain regions that put the brakes on risky behaviour are still under construction.” “During the time of puberty, testosterone-like hormones that are released by adrenal glands, will begin to circulate and cause receptors everywhere in the brain. This process then causes an exerting and direct influence of serotonin and other neurochemicals that regulate mood and excitability to hit the teen-brain like a train. These emotions and waves of thrill seeking are what put teenagers at risk.

Studies have also shown that teenagers use the back of the brain more than the frontal lobes and when they use the frontal lobes they overdo it, which is why most adults can arrive at a decision more quickly than many teenagers.

So what does it mean to have a strong desire for pleasure and reward combined with hormonal imbalances in conjunction with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex? An explanation for a lot of ‘normal’, teenage behaviours?

So what can you do?

This work is still very much at research stage and new findings and developments are still being drawn out, but my underlying recommendation to you is to use this knowledge to try and understand your wayward teenager and how mixed up they feel.

It is a cruel irony that when a young mind is at its most vulnerable, it is also most likely to experiment with drugs etc. I believe an explanation of the brain functions at this stage, if properly articulated, makes a compelling argument to a young teenager that any experimentation with drugs at this stage will have an ongoing effect for the rest of their lives.

Allow them to make mistakes, give them a safe environment where it is okay to make mistakes and to talk about it. Work with them to find the lessons that can be learned and help them to see alternative strategies and how these may be preferable. Ask your teenagers lots of questions that challenge their thinking and encourage them to try other sports and ‘the arts’ (other than playing games on the computer and lying on the couch).

I think it is also useful to support them with items they are still developing such as organising their time, creating structure, helping them through tough decisions (which they will resist and won’t thank you for), help them to create strategies for problem solving and by doing what a parent does best – supplying copious amounts of patience and love. Remember to try and work on equal power relations instead of imposing your views on them.

The bottom line? Let them be teenagers!

Some other interesting facts:

Male brains are usually 10 percent larger than female brains but this does not confer any advantage as the difference is due to different parts being larger or smaller. Interestingly, females generally have a larger basal ganglia which relates to executive functioning and the general trend observed is for girl’s brains to mature earlier than boys’ brains.

See also Giedd, J.N., Lalonde, .FM., Celano, M.J., White, S.L., Wallace, G.L., Lee, N.R., Lenroot, R.K. ‘Anatomical brain magnetic resonance imaging of typically developing children and adolescents’. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 48(5):465-70. 2009.)