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Understanding the Incredible Teenage Brain: Part 1

"It's a paradoxical time of development.
These are people with very sharp brains, but they're not quite sure what to do with them. Adolescents are not, in fact, an alien species, just a misunderstood one."
Heffernan & Harrington, 2020: 52

The Incredible Teenage Years.

Teenagers tend to get a bad rap. There’s a dominant belief in our society that the teenage years are full of terrible turbulence with hormone driven behaviour leading to all sorts of challenges with “stinky, moody, difficult teenagers”.

But what if this isn’t quite accurate?

What if there’s more to the story?

And what if that more to the story involves us?

“The teenage brain can grow or contract depending on the quality of the adult relationships in a young person’s life.” Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 23

The teenage years are incredible.

Yes, they can be incredibly challenging, but they are also incredibly amazing.

The key characteristics of adolescence are due to natural, healthy changes in the brain. Yes, these changes can mean it’s a turbulent time for teens’ development and family life, but there’s definitely more to the picture than portrayed in negative stereotypes. For example, did you know that due to dynamic brain development the teenage years provide a unique opportunity to develop and hone skills like learning a musical instrument or playing sport. Now might just be the time to take up guitar, chess, or basketball! If you embrace what we now know about teens, you’ll appreciate teen potential and passions and help them grow great skills and grow into amazing human beings. It’s also a key time in which we can support our teen’s mental health.

“Adolescence is perhaps the time when we have the greatest opportunity to tip the balance in a direction that limits the possibility of a negative spiral in a person’s life.” Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 35

Brain development can feel a bit like a double-edged sword. It’s a tricky time, and a time when our kids really need us because “The very same openness to learning experiences means less productive patterns can develop around this time too.” (Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 17). So, we do need to be aware and careful to “’catch’ young people who are making negative life choices and support them onto a better path” (Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 17). A key to this is your relationship.

“If we do not hold our children close to us, the ultimate cost is the loss of their ability to hold on to their own truest selves.”
Neufield & Mate, 2019:109

Relationships matter! And relationships can be tricky with teens as they are at an age in which becoming an individual, “individuation”, is a key developmental process and becoming closer to friends matters. But it is also a time when our teens need us and our relationship the most, and where we must balance their attachments to peers with their attachment to us.

“Absolutely clear is that children were meant to revolve around their parents and the other adults responsible them, just as the planets revolve around the sun. And yet more and more children are now orbiting around each other.”
Neufield & Mate, 2019:109

Holding on to our kids and safeguarding their developing brains while honouring their developing independence and interest in friends is no small feat.

But it’s an important task and worth the effort and work.

“It is our job, as parents, to cultivate attachments with our children that make room for individuation. A child’s individuality should never be the price exacted for warmth and closeness. We have to give to our children what they cannot give to one another: the freedom to be themselves in the context of loving acceptance – an acceptance that immature peers are unable to offer but one that we adults can and must provide.”
Neufield & Mate, 2019: 126

One way to keep a compassionate, graceful, connected relationship with your teen is to arm yourself with knowledge that will help you understand your teen and their development, and help you take the tricky things like big emotions, spicy words, and difficult behaviours less personally. This is helpful whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, or family friend.

The Teenage Brain

The teenage years are a period of significant change and growth, both physically and mentally with changes in behaviour, motivations, priorities, and drives.

It’s important to keep in mind that the teenage brain isn’t an “old child brain” or a “half-baked adult brain” (Giedd, 2015: 32) but instead is unique. Understanding the unique characteristics of the teenage brain is crucial for providing appropriate support and guidance. So, let’s dive into the fascinating, amazing world of the teenage brain, exploring its development, challenges, advantages, and strategies to foster healthy adolescent growth. When we understand the teenage brain, we can communicate better, distinguish typical behaviour from mental health challenges, have more empathy, and help our teens become the people they want to be.

Let’s start with a very helpful metaphor to understand brain development during adolescence: The brain is under renovation. This means the brain is in a dynamic state of change and development including significant restructuring that can be likened to a renovation process. And in particular, the prefrontal cortex as neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis, explains is pretty much "closed for renovation".

Structural Changes: Like renovating a building, the teenage brain experiences structural changes. The brain undergoes a process called "synaptic pruning," where the brain works out what is being used and “myelinates” the pathways it wants to keep. Myelination reinforces pathways. This means unused neural connections are eliminated, used pathways reinforced and the brain becomes more refined, streamlined, and efficient. This is kind of like when you prune a rose bush to get rid of the deadwood and allow the remaining branches to grow well and flower.

Synaptic pruning is an essential part of brain development, and parents can play a supportive role during this period by providing a nurturing and stimulating environment. Foster communication and support your teen’s areas of interest and passion to help them and to help maintain your relationship. Also, be sure to be a good role model and safe base for them.

Emotional Centre: The emotional centre of the brain, the limbic system, is “turbo boosted” during adolescence. This can lead to increased emotional responses and a greater emphasis on social connections and relationships. In fact, Nathan Wallis says that teens are “biologically primed” to operate from their limbic system and be driven be their feelings around 90% of the time. This means you might notice more emotional intensity in your adolescent. They may exhibit mood swings and heightened sensitivity. Recognizing and validating these emotions while providing co-regulation and supporting emotional regulation can help teenagers in navigating this tumultuous stage.

It’s also helpful to know that the limbic system interacts with the prefrontal cortex in the teen years resulting in novelty seeking, risk taking and a shift towards peer relationships and interactions. While this is healthy for development and “survival of the species” as teens move towards maturity and creating their own families, it’s also risky depending on who they gravitate towards, and what they have access to. This is why our teens need us even as they need a degree of separation from us.

Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, planning, and impulse control, and involved in memory … and it is still under development during the teenage years. This area of the brain is critical for rational thinking and weighing consequences, but it may not fully mature and be firing on all cylinders until the mid-20s or even later for boys.

As a result, teenagers may sometimes struggle with decision-making, judgment, and impulse control. What this creates is a mismatch between the development of the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system, and the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, with the emotional center firing away while the thinking center is still developing and “not as good” as it’s going to get. This mismatch “leaves adolescents open to risky behaviour but also allows for leaps in cognition and adaptability” (Giedd, 2015: 33). If you can understand this mismatch, you will appreciate your teen with a lot more patience.

Understanding these differences in brain development can help explain some of the behaviours exhibited by teenagers. The combination of heightened emotions and an immature prefrontal cortex can lead to increased risk-taking behaviour in teenagers. They can be more prone to seeking novelty and excitement without fully evaluating potential risks. And keep in mind that risk taking triples in the company of peers. You might also notice impulsive behaviour, and struggles with decision-making, assessing risks, and controlling impulses.

Setting clear boundaries, fostering open communication, and teaching problem-solving skills can help mitigate impulsive behaviour and encourage responsible decision-making.

Another interesting impact of the prefrontal cortex being shut for renovation is that they can lose their ability to read facial expressions – this means that you might walk in the door stressed from traffic and your teen will think you are mad at them, and even get reactive towards you. You might want to get good at “broadcasting” what’s going on for you e.g., telling them you had a stressful drive home and then giving them a big smile and pat of the shoulder.

Empathy is also a prefrontal cortex function and can be a work in progress during “renovations”. A great tip for helping your kids develop empathy is to show them empathy.

Remember too that the limbic system is taking over about 90% of the time which means the prefrontal cortex will be working about 10% of the time. This might help understand why they seem perfectly fine and capable at times but struggle other times.

Reward System: The brain's reward system, centered around the neurotransmitter dopamine, is highly active during adolescence. This makes teenagers more sensitive to rewards and social feedback, which can influence their behaviour and decision-making. This means that things like screen time can become more appealing which then means that it is important to promote a healthy balance between screen time and other activities. It's a good idea to limit excessive use of digital devices and encourage participation in physical activities, hobbies, and social interactions.

A great tip from the fantastic book “The Incredible Teenage Brain” is that teenagers are much more likely to respond well to a positive reward or motivator rather than negative consequences.

  • Positive motivator e.g., if you can get home on time, you can earn the right to stay out later next month.

  • Negative consequence e.g., if you don’t get home on time, you will be grounded for the month.

While sometimes consequences are needed using negotiation and positive motivation wherever possible is the better way to go at this stage.

There are some other important aspects of teenage development that are associated with brain development and are helpful to understand:

  • Peer Influence: During adolescence, the desire for social acceptance and identity formation intensifies. The influence of peers becomes prominent as teenagers seek validation and recognition from their social circles. Understanding the impact of peer pressure and maintaining open lines of communication can help teenagers make informed choices while nurturing their individuality. It’s also helpful to invite their friends over for a meal and get to know them.

  • Sleep Patterns and Cognitive Functioning: The teenage brain undergoes changes in sleep patterns and potentially difficulties falling asleep and waking up early. These changes can be attributed to shifts in their biological clock, increased academic and social demands, and excessive exposure to electronic devices. This can result in sleep deprivation, affecting cognitive functioning, mood, and overall well-being. Encouraging healthy sleep habits and providing a conducive sleep environment are essential for optimal brain development and academic performance.

  • Forgetfulness: Memory is a function of the prefrontal cortex and an increase in forgetfulness is a first sign of brain pruning. Teens can become more forgetful and as Maggie Dent describes “..memories are anchored when there are strong emotions present” so a lot of other stuff will “’go through to the keeper’” (2021: 43). Picking up that towel off the floor might really matter to you, but just may go through to the keeper. An understanding, supportive approach to forgetfulness is best as well as helping them avoid multitasking e.g., doing homework while watching YouTube and Snapchatting friends; talking to them about how you can work together on this; providing gentle and fun reminders e.g., post it notes with drawings; and coaching them in organisational skills.

  • Building Healthy Relationships: The teenage years are pivotal for the formation of social connections and the development of interpersonal skills. Nurturing healthy relationships and teaching empathy, active listening, and conflict resolution skills can support teenagers in building meaningful connections and fostering positive social interactions. Be sure to engage in curious conversations though with gentle guidance, and don’t fall into the trap of lecturing.

So, if all this is happening, how does maturation of the teenage brain happen? “The consistent theme that is emerging is that the adolescent brain does not mature by getting larger; it matures by having its different components become more interconnected and by becoming more specialised” (Giedd, 2016). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because teens look like mini adults and appear to have adult sized brains, they have adult judgement and competency. The teen brain is a unique entity and deserves, in fact needs, compassion and understanding, on its path to maturation. You can’t see everything that’s happening but believe me, there’s a lot going on!

And the beauty of this is that through your relationship you can help shape your teen’s development in positive ways, due to the “plasticity” of the brain during this developmental period. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is like the superpower of our brains to change and adapt throughout our lives. Just like muscles get stronger when we exercise them, our brains can get 'smarter' when we use them. During adolescence, their brain is super adaptable. This is a unique time when their brain is extra ready to learn and adapt.

So, now that you know about the brain, please remember:

  • Show yourself patience and self-compassion as you navigate this important developmental transition

  • Show your teen patience and compassion as they navigate the changes of adolescence

  • Reframe forgetfulness, messiness, and moodiness as “renovations”

  • Provide gentle, caring encouragement as well as respectful firm limits, and negotiate where possible

  • Encourage them to explore new interests and skills to make the most of this special window of opportunity

  • Balance supporting their growing independence with keeping your connection to them

And remember this is a time of great possibility.

“We need to reappraise the teenage years as a time of possibility rather than take the traditionally negative view of teens which is the prevailing narrative.”
Hohnen, Gilmour and Murphy, 2020: 16

Find out more in Part 2 of this blog - Understanding the Incredible Teenage Brain:

Part 2: A Balanced Perspective

Leonie :)

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.

Please seek help from a professional if you require support.

References & Resources:

Dahl, R. & Suleiman, A. (2017). Adolescent Brain Development: Windows of Opportunity. The Adolescent Brain: A second window of opportunity A Compendium. 7 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

Dent, M. (2021). From Boys to Men: Guiding Our Teen Boys to Grow into Happy, Healthy Men. Pan Macmillan Australia: Sydney.

Geidd, J. (2015). The amazing teen brain. Scientific American, June 2015, 32 – 37.

Heffernan, L. & Harrington, M. D. (2019). Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults. Flatiron Books: New York.

Huhne, B., Gilmour, J. & Murphy, T. (2020). The Incredible Teenage Brain: Everything You Need to Know to Unlock Your Teen’s Potential. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

Neufeld, G. & Mate, G. (2019). Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers. Vermilion: London.

Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Penguin: New York.

Helpful Resources:

Teen Stress and Anxiety

Dan Siegel - "The Adolescent Brain"

Decision making and the adolescent brain

Parenting teens:We're making it harder than it needs to be | Dr. Cameron Caswell | TEDxDeerParkWomen

Teen Brains Are Not Broken | Roselinde Kaiser, Ph.D. | TEDxBoulder

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