Why Do They Do That? A Closer Look at the Ongoing Development of the Teen Brain

Why Do They Do That? A Closer Look at the Ongoing Development of the Teen Brain

When children enter their adolescence, they seem to be going backward in relation to maturity. Some parents of teens describe their teen as aliens from another planet. They are no longer children and not yet adults. They get volatile, moody, rebellious, unpredictable, self–centered, rude, impulsive and frustrating to deal with. Parents long for their loving and kind child or a mature rational emerging adult. What parents need to know is that their son or daughter is in a vulnerable in-between stage. They have so much to do during this transitional phase that it is imperative parents are able to assist their adolescent with this stage of development.

Here are just some of the struggles that they face:

  • Sexually maturing bodies coupled with strong urges and desires
  • Strong, volatile, powerful feelings and emotions
  • Rapidly changing social norms
  • Increasing global social network
  • Immense peer pressure and the desire to fit in
  • Refining their values
  • Negotiating relationships with their parents
  • Increased levels of autonomy
  • The natural inclination to take risks
  • Dealing with academic pressures of school and sometimes work
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • The uncertainty of what is ahead
  • Planning their future

Here is what parents need to know about the adolescent brain. It is not an adult brain. It is under construction. This time of brain development is similar to that of a toddler in that rapid growth is taking place. This is why adolescents need more sleep, nutritious food and guidance from an adult.

Why Do They Do That? A Closer Look at the Ongoing Development of the Teen BrainHere is what is happening in regard to the development of the teen brain:

Rapid growth of dendrites (building brain connections)

The brain connections phase is important to know about because this is a time that the brain is very susceptible to substances. Adolescents are many times more likely to become addicted to drugs, alcohol and pornography if they engage in these behaviors while their brain is setting up neuro-pathways.

Blossoming and pruning (use it or lose it)

Patterns of behaviors are now in play. Adolescents should be guided into pro-social behaviors such as civic engagement, public service, the discipline of sports and athletics, manners, respect, kindness, empathy, healthy relationships, anger management, recognizing feelings, choosing healthy behaviors, critical thinking, decision making, and asking for help since they are setting up the patterns of behaviors for their young lives.

Increased insulation (myelination) of nerve cells

This rapid growth could be slowed down with the use of substances, lack of adequate sleep and poor nutrition.

The place in the brain that helps adolescents make high level, cognitive, executive decisions that can override intense feelings is the pre frontal cortex located in the front of the brain. This part of the brain is the last to develop. That is why teens are very smart, clever, creative and even cunning. The part of their brains that deals with concrete facts, figures, dates and times is grown. They are very smart! It is the abstract, long range consequences, cause and effect part of the brain (pre frontal cortex) that needs more time to grow. Another part of the brain that parents/adults need to be aware of is the amygdala. The amygdala is where feelings are stored. This part of the brain of an adolescent is very active. Some brain experts describe adolescence as when the “amygdala is on fire.” That is why teens need adult guidance to listen and assist in sorting out the intensity of feelings vs. acting out on those feelings. Parents and adults in an adolescent’s life need to become their “prefrontal cortex.”

How long does this process take? According to Harvard researcher Dr Jay Geidd, this process of adolescent brain development is not complete until the mid-20s.

What do your kids need from you to assist this process?

They need:

  • to know about this brain development process and their need for adult guidance
  • grace, kindness and respect
  • you to listen more
  • to know how much you desire to assist
  • appreciations and affirmations
  • for you to buy and serve nutritional foods
  • adequate sleep, clarity, family rules and consistency
  • to participate in healthy risk taking such as mountain climbing, sky diving, entering contests
  • opportunities to learn and grow such as traveling, exploring faraway places, adventures
  • parents to model healthy behaviors
  • emotional safety to be able to ask for help
  • life and relationship skills
  • empowerment—keeping expectations high
  • family traditions honored
  • clear consequences outlined with follow through
  • time with family
  • family connections, friends and supportive social connections
  • you to speak in concrete—not abstract— terms. Define exactly what “later,” “ready” and “maturity” mean to you in a given situation.



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