The teen brain

The brain is still under development in the teen years

Kathy Martin* of Nanoose Bay, BC, says that at age 13, her daughter Beth would often “phone home at 2:45 on a Friday afternoon, expecting me to be there, waiting to come and pick her up — even though she hadn’t mentioned at any time previous that she might need a ride.”

If Martin wasn’t home, she’d hear about it later from her daughter: “‘You went to Costco? How can you be so thoughtless?’ She tended to think we were all just living in suspended animation until she walked into the room or needed us to do something.”

Beth, now 17, has eased up on her expectations of her family (and, thankfully, can now drive herself). However, younger brother James has developed his own mental roadblocks. “James has issues around transportation,” Martin says. He gets on a bus only to discover, when it stops, that he is in the wrong place entirely. “He does OK if I guide him to think things through, but he doesn’t do it on his own.”

What is it with teen brains? The same kids who can master algebra, volunteer to help disabled athletes, and navigate the complex structures of World of Warcraft, can also seem hopelessly irresponsible, reckless and self-centred. Adults have probably been complaining about these issues since the beginning of time. But we’re the first generation to have a window into the adolescent mind, and new research on brain structure and chemistry is giving us some answers.

* Names changed by request.

Brain development

Researchers Frances Jensen and David Urion of Harvard Medical School reported in Harvard Magazine that recent MRI studies show the adolescent brain is only 80 percent developed, and the last section to “connect up” is the frontal lobe — which may not happen until age 20 or 25. The frontal lobe is the part responsible for things like planning for the future and judgment. The neural network between brain cells is enlarging during the early teen years (12 to 14 for girls, roughly two years later for boys), meaning that the brain is ready to learn, but also susceptible to stress.

The not-yet-fully-connected frontal lobe is also responsible for recognizing emotions in others. Another Harvard researcher showed pictures of frightened faces to both adults and teens. While 100 percent of the adults identified the emotion as fear, more than half of the young teens (ages 11 to 14) thought the person was sad or angry, rather than frightened.

The why behind teen behaviours

Susan Dafoe-Abbey, a marriage and family therapist in Guelph, Ont., says this research is very helpful in giving parents the why behind teen behaviours. “They often aren’t able to plan for the future, use common sense or understand the consequences of things they do or don’t do.”

She feels that a push for early independence from either parents or teen can make problems more significant. “Given these limitations in their brains, teens still need a lot of support and guidance from parents. We need to look at teens in a new way.” Here’s how:

Stay close Your 14-year-old son may be six inches taller than you, but he still needs you. A lot. His seemingly reckless behaviour is because his brain isn’t thinking about what might happen if his skateboard hits a rock, so he needs you to step in to make sure he has the proper safety gear and restricts his skateboarding to a safe location. You can foster the kind of relationship where your teen will accept and rely on your advice, Dafoe-Abbey says, by spending positive time with him away from his friends and doing things to remind him how much you care — a special treat after school, a hug, a genuine compliment.

Rethink discipline “Their brains can’t really anticipate consequences,” points out Dafoe-Abbey, “so it’s not surprising that all the research shows that things like rewards, time outs, consequences and punishments don’t work. In fact, they can end up damaging that close relationship that teens need so much at this age.” What works better is for parents to act more like a coach than a boss, helping their teens to develop problem-solving skills and empathy for others.

If in doubt, explain Remember the research that showed how teens misinterpreted facial expressions? That can lead to many difficulties between parents and teens. You’re feeling sad after the vet diagnosed your cat with cancer, and your teen interprets this as anger directed at her, and quickly becomes defensive. Suddenly you’re fighting and you don’t even know why. Take the time to explain what you’re feeling if you see that your child is reacting in an unexpected way.

Carve out quiet time Jensen’s research also found that adolescent brain cells took longer to recover from exposure to alcohol or marijuana than adult brains, so a few drinks on the weekend may mean impaired learning the following week. The sensory overload that is part of modern life can also be a problem for teens — all that multi-tasking can make it harder for the brain connections to form as they should. “They need some quiet time, away from electronics, to relax and reflect,” says Dafoe-Abbey.

Most of all, teens need us to hang in there. “Don’t give up, don’t lose patience, don’t get ticked off at them,” says Dafoe-Abbey. “We all want an instant quick fix when our kid’s behaviour is bothering us, and there isn’t one. It takes time and a lot of support for your child’s brain to mature.”

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