Teenage Brain 101

“You may be wondering what your son is thinking…The answer is, he’s not.”  David says often in our parenting seminar, Raising Boys and Girls.  You probably remember that stage with your son.  He would put marbles up his nose and try to flush a matchbox car down the toilet.  His lack of thinking ended him up in trouble quite often.  If you have a teenager, son or daughter, it can feel much the same.  

What is she thinking that she can text and drive at the same time and not have an accident?

What is he thinking that he doesn’t have to do any of his school work and he’ll be “fine?”

What is she thinking that she could go to a movie with her friends on a Wednesday night, when I’ve told her that she needs to clean her room and study for her math test?  

What ARE they thinking?

Well, the answer isn’t quite the same as with toddlers.  Teenagers are thinking, they’re just not thinking very efficiently.  Maybe a better way to say it is that their brains aren’t working very efficiently. 

Teenagers really do have a lot of strikes against them.  They have hormones flooding their brains and bodies, making for dramatic mood swings.  They’re supposed to be establishing their independence in these years, and have one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood.  Their friends are often fickle.  They’re trying to prove themselves.  And school really isn’t easy…just try to tackle one of the proofs in your daughter’s calculus book.  When we think of high school, we may remember a carefree time with no responsibilities where your biggest concern was which outfit to wear to prom.  But life is hard for teenagers in a lot of ways, and that’s with a fully functioning brain.

Let’s look at what is happening in the brain of your adolescent.

1) Amygdala rules.  The amygdala is an almond shaped region of the brain that controls our instinctual responses, our “gut” reactions.  The amygdala takes over in fear-inducing situations, often with a “fight” or “flight” response.  Have you noticed your teen fighting or flighting with you on a regular basis?

I’m amazed how often I’ll sit with teenagers and their parents in my counseling offices and I’ll hear some version of this conversation.  

“You yell at me all of the time,” a teenage girl will loudly say to her mom.  

“Yell,” her mom will respond.  “I only remember yelling at you once in the past month.

“You yelled at me on the way here.”

And then the mom will look at me and quietly say, “I didn’t yell.”

But this teenage girl’s amygdala took over, in the car ride and sitting in my office.  She was defensive and reacted to her mom’s perceived yell. 

In a study at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, a group of researchers did a study showing a variety of faces to teens and adults.  These faces were registering various emotions.  One particular photo was of a woman clearly displaying fear.  The researchers were surprised to note that the teens consistently reported her feelings as “shocked, surprised, angry.”1These researchers found that the teens were relying on their amygdalas for the answers, rather than the more rational regions of their brains.

Your children will misinterpret social cues in these years.  He will misread your expressions.  She will misread the expressions of her teacher.  They will think you or others are “mad” at them, when the reality is very different.  And their responses will often be the defensive, or reactionary responses of the amygdala.

2) Frontal lobe lagging.  Because of the immaturity of an adolescent brain, the frontal lobe has not fully developed.  The frontal lobe is the region in charge of reason and planning.  It is the last section of the brain to develop and doesn’t do so until your child’s mid-20’s to 30’s.2Without the full functioning of the frontal lobe, the amygdala often takes over.  It chooses reaction over reason, impulse over rational thought.  And so she decides you were yelling.  She gets defensive.  He makes poor decisions in stressful situations.  Or maybe just poor decisions in general.  They are not yet capable of the reasoning and rational abilities we are, as adults.  

3) Gaps and synapses.  Another issue with a teen’s brain development is the fact that it is still developing.  A teenage brain is reported to be only about 80% of what it will be in terms of it’s development. 2This means that the synapses, small gaps in the brain through which the neurotransmitters travel, are growing at rapid paces.  In other words, the brain is wiring itself in these years but there are still areas that the wires haven’t quite reached.  There are regions that are not connected yet and therefore not fully working.  As a result, teens are moreimpulsive and more influenced by those around them than adults.  

4) Boys and girls are different, even in their brain development.  The area of our brain that processes information increases during childhood and then thins out during adolescence.  For girls, this happens between generally between 12 and 14 years of age and for boys, 16 to 18. 2This means that school settings can be challenges.  Boys and girls may be ready for new information at different stages and ages, and classes may not be geared to help their specific needs.

5) The hope of neurons.  On a positive note, neurons are making some helpful changes in the teenage brain.  Neurons communicate through chemical signals, and those networks are growing in your son or daughter’s brain in their teenage years.  This growth excites the cells and encourages even more growth.  They are, therefore, more prime for learning activities such as playing a musical instrument or a foreign language.  And, what they learn in these years is more likely to stick than what with those of us whose brains are no longer so excitable.

What does all of this mean, with September rolling around and school starting back for your teenager?  Join us next week as we give some specific ways you can help…