Scientists used to think human brain development was pretty complete by age 10; that a teenage brain was just an adult brain with fewer miles on it. But recent research has shown that the rational part of a teen’s brain (the frontal cortex) is not fully developed until he or she is 25 years old.
Adults use the frontal cortex to evaluate choices, make decisions and act accordingly in each situation. The teenage brain doesn’t appear to work like this. Teens process information with the amydgala, the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward. In imaging studies that compared brain activity when the subject received a small, medium or large reward, teenagers exhibited exaggerated responses to medium and large rewards compared to children and adults. When presented with a small reward, the teenagers’ brains hardly fired at all in comparison to adults and children.
The combination of the underdeveloped frontal cortex and a heightened need for reward is what drives some of the most frustrating and frightening teenage behavior. For most adults, climbing hotel balconies or skateboarding off roofs of houses sound like awful ideas. Their frontal cortex curbs any impulse to do so, because the possible negative outcomes outweigh any potential thrill. But teenagers may try these things because they’re seeking a buzz to satisfy that reward center, while their frontal cortex can’t register all the risks these actions entail.
How can a parent help?
- Never forget you’re the most important role model your kids have. Their friends are important but how you behave will have a profound and lasting effect on your children.
- Help your children link impulsive
thinking with facts by discussing with them possible consequences of their actions.
- Remind your teens that they’re resilient and competent. Remind them of instances in the past they thought would be devastating but turned out for the best.
- Become familiar with what is important to them. Taking an interest shows them that they are important to you.
- Ask teens if they want you to respond when they come to you with problems or if they just want you to listen. This will make it emotionally safe for them to come to you and so that you can be included in their lives at these ages.
The teenage years don’t have to be all doom and gloom — plasticity can also help teens pick up new skills. The teen years may be the time when potential poets start scribbling furiously in notebooks and future hoops heroes start really hitting their shots. Before the brain is fully molded is a great time to take up the guitar or learn a new skill. Not that teenagers will listen if you tell them this. But just knowing that the teenage brain needs more time and experience to develop may help both parent and child survive adolescence.
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