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Understanding the Incredible Teenage Brain: Part 2

“The neural plasticity that occurs during puberty creates a unique window of opportunity ...
…it is crucial to understand that adolescence is also a window of opportunity for positive spirals – establishing healthy patterns of behaviour, and social and emotional learning that can increase positive developmental trajectories.”
Dahl and Suleiman, 2017: 23

“A mismatch in the maturation of brain networks leaves adolescents open to risky behavior but also allows for leaps in cognition and adaptability.”
Giedd, 2015: 33

The teenage years tend to get a bad rap, but there’s much more to the picture than first meets the eye.

This is an incredible window of neurodevelopment full of possibility, thanks to something called “plasticity”.

What’s plasticity?

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.

Imagine your child's brain is like a big puzzle, with pieces that represent different skills and abilities like learning, memory, and problem-solving. When they learn something new, like tying their shoes or reading a book, these puzzle pieces in their brain connect and grow stronger, like pieces fitting together. What's amazing is that even as they grow older, their brain can keep changing and growing. So, if your teen practices a skill or keeps learning new things, their brain will keep making new connections and getting better at those things.

As parents, you can encourage brain plasticity by providing new and interesting learning experiences for your child, like puzzles, physical activities, cooking, games, or learning a musical instrument. It's like giving their brain a workout, helping them become even smarter and more capable.

And the bonus for adolescents? In this period of development, the brain is super adaptable which means the teen years are a unique time when their brain is extra ready to learn and adapt. It’s also a time in which we can shift teens away from negative risk-taking trajectories and move them towards healthy exploration and learning. Exploration and learning are critical at this time because teens do need to acquire skills and knowledge necessary for adult life, and we can help them with this. How? Through positive experiences and learning with healthy supports, and with scaffolding from parents, trusted adults, schools, and communities.

Yes, that’s right relationships are foundational, and they can also be challenging in the teen years. It’s tricky to balance a teen’s growing need for independence with connection to us as parents and caregivers, but it’s essential given what we know about brain development that we provide support through connection.

Here’s a great quote to help you think about this balance:

“Our overemphasis on independence may undermine what has allowed us to thrive throughout the millennia. We thrive best, and indeed survive, when we remain connected. Although we raise our children to be able to fly on their own, we must also prepare them to understand connection is the most important force in their lives. We do this neither by blanketing them with overprotection nor by demanding their full attention. We do this by taking care not to install the control buttons from which they must flee. We do this by noticing their growing wisdom and development … and honouring their increasing independence. We do this by recognising them as the experts in their own lives, and by sharing our experience when needed. We do this by backing away from believing every moment with our children must be productive and by returning to what has always worked – being together. Just being. Yes, they will fly away and the launching my even have its painful moments. But ultimately, we want to raise children who choose interdependence, knowing that nothing is more meaningful or makes us more successful than being surrounded by those we love.”
Dr Kenneth Ginsburg
In Heffernan and Harrington, 2019: xxi

And so, it's really important to consider the several advantages or upsides associated with this stage of development to develop a balanced view of the teenage brain:

  • Neuroplasticity, Learning and Skill Acquisition: The teenage brain exhibits high levels of neuroplasticity, which refers to its ability to adapt and reorganize itself in response to experiences, learning, and environmental changes. This heightened plasticity allows teenagers to acquire new skills, learn languages, and develop talents more rapidly than adults. Adolescents are particularly adept at learning and acquiring new skills because their brains are optimized for absorbing information and adapting to various subjects, whether it's academic knowledge, artistic skills, or sports abilities. This makes it an optimal time for formal education and skill development.

  • Creativity and Innovation: The teenage brain's flexible and open-minded nature often leads to increased creativity and innovation. Teenagers are more willing to explore new ideas, challenge conventions, and think outside the box, which can contribute to breakthroughs in various fields. Google “teenage inventors” in you’re curious about this.

  • Social and Emotional Growth: Adolescence is a period of heightened social awareness and emotional development. Teenagers become more attuned to their own emotions and those of others, which can lead to increased empathy, better interpersonal skills, and deeper social connections.

  • Peer Relationships and Social Skills: Teenagers place a high value on peer relationships and social interactions. This stage provides opportunities to develop valuable social skills, such as communication, conflict resolution, teamwork, and leadership, which are essential for success in adulthood.

  • Risk-Taking and Exploration: While risk-taking behaviour can sometimes have negative consequences, it's important to note that moderate levels of risk-taking during adolescence can lead to valuable learning experiences. Teens often explore new activities, relationships, and environments, and try new things, which helps them develop a sense of autonomy and personal identity.

  • Adaptation to Change and Resilience: Adolescence is a transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, requiring teenagers to adapt to changing roles, responsibilities, and expectations. When this adaptability occurs in the context of safe, loving, supportive relationships it fosters resilience and the ability to cope with life's uncertainties.

  • Critical Thinking and Decision-Making: The teenage brain undergoes significant development in regions responsible for critical thinking and decision-making. While impulsive behaviour may be a concern, as the prefrontal cortex matures it will allow teenagers to engage in more complex reasoning, evaluate options, and make informed choices.

  • Motivation and Goal Setting: Adolescents often demonstrate increased motivation and the ability to set and work toward long-term goals. They become more self-aware and motivated to pursue their passions and interests, which can contribute to personal growth and success. Supporting their interests, even if you don’t share those interests, and helping them make informed choices can empower them to pursue fulfilling paths and activities in life.

It's important to note that there are both challenges and benefits of this stage of development, and trusted, connected adults can help teenagers navigate the challenges while harnessing the benefits of their brain's developmental stage.

How will knowing this information and holding a balanced perspective of the teen years help you harness the benefits of your teen’s brain development? What will you do to connect, support, and encourage your teen?

“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 even more in Part 3 of this blog - Understanding the Incredible Teenage Brain: Part 3: Supporting Teenagers During Brain Development

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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