Module 5 – The Adolescent Brain…What were you thinking?!?!

We often think of the teen years as a time of raging hormones, risk-taking, and generally something we (parents) have to “tolerate” in order for our kids to become adults. But, there is A LOT that goes on during adolescence, physically/emotionally, and within the brain structure itself. 

The stage of development known as “adolescence” officially starts when puberty begins (for some girls as early as 10; boys generally a little later) and ends with a fully formed frontal lobe and an independent young adult, usually around age 25. Adolescence is now being defined, according to Dr. Lawrence Steinberg (an expert who has devoted his life’s work to studying the brain in adolescents) as a 15 YEAR period of time! 

That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Here’s something else Dr. Steinberg makes clear; our kid’s five senses are heightened, especially at the onset of adolescence (meaning, what tastes good tastes even BETTER between ages 10-14…what looks appealing, sounds interesting, smells good, feels bad/good…ALL of the senses are heightened during this period of body and brain growth). On the other hand, our kid’s ability to make sound decisions and fully understand the consequences of their actions will not develop until the end of adolescence.

Another key point of growth and development during this life stage is an increase in risk-taking behavior. ESPECIALLY when teens are around their peers. Do you remember doing anything really dumb during high school (if you are like me it was several things…)? Or, did you make some choices where now that you look back on it you cannot understand why you did what you did? That’s exactly what I mean. Most of us did not get through our teen years without making a few unhealthy, unsafe choices.

We now understand so much more about the brain and its development through adolescence than we did even a generation ago, it’s important as parents to have a better understanding of what our kids are experiencing. Not so we can then write off every mistake or bad choice they make to, “Oh well, she’s a teen and they are just going to make stupid choices or bad decisions,” but in an effort to be compassionate as we guide them into learning from their mistakes and to help them make wiser decisions as their adolescence becomes young adulthood.

With several terrific books on the subject available today, I am going to give you the names of the three I find most beneficial and encourage you to pick them up so as to learn more about brain development and your teenager.

My top three book choices on the subject of teenage brain development include:

  • Age of Opportunity Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D.
  • Brainstorm The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
  • Building Resilience in Children and Teens by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg and Martha Jablow

I will be sharing some of what I feel are the most important highlights from these selections; things I feel aren’t well known about what goes on for our teens (brain-wise) that will help you have a clearer picture of what you are dealing with now and in the years ahead.

Let’s begin…

Adolescence is a period of tremendous “neuroplasticity”, which is a term scientists use to describe the brain’s potential to change through experience.

We all know that ages 0-3 are a HUGE time of growth, learning, and brain development for children; but ages 10-14 are the SECOND, and last time the brain goes through tremendous change. The brain is adult size by about age 10, but the pruning of neural pathways and creating new neural connections goes on for a few years after that.

Here is a quick video to watch that will give you a great understanding of what the brain goes through during early adolescence:

*Plasticity is the process through which the outside world gets inside us and changes us. It allows our kids to acquire new information and abilities. It’s also a prime time for us to intervene in order to promote positive development. 

On the other hand, because adolescent senses are heightened, and risk-taking increased, the brain is ripe and vulnerable to negative paths as well, including psychological issues (stress/anxiety/depression) and addiction. This is why it’s important to get young people counseling earlier rather than later if they are experiencing emotional challenges, and why the longer our kids wait to try pot or drink alcohol, the greater chance they will have at avoiding addiction as a young person.

There are two types of brain plasticity. “Developmental plasticity” refers to the malleability of the brain during periods in which the brain is being built, when its anatomy is still changing in profound ways. It’s the process through which experience sculpts the developing brain, continuing into the mid-twenties.

The other type of plasticity is “adult plasticity” which does not fundamentally alter the neural structure of the brain (as it does during adolescence). It mainly involves fairly minor modifications to existing brain circuits. It’s like the difference between learning how to read (which is a life-altering change) and reading a new book (which is usually not).

The developing brain is sculpted both by passive exposure and by active experience. That means that before our brain has fully matured, we can be affected, in potentially permanent ways, by every experience, whether it’s positive or negative, whether we understand it or not – in fact, whether or not we’re even aware of it.

*Taken from Age of Opportunity by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D.

One of the things as parents we can do to help our kids reach young adulthood with as much positive experience as possible is to raise them with a hand-in-hand approach; rather than trying to dominate or control their behavior during adolescence. A partnership where we set in place certain general guidelines or boundaries (such as basic nutrition, sleep parameters, screen time limits) and then allow them to choose things for themselves as much as possible, especially as they progress through high school. For example, allowing our teen to decide what time they want to do homework, or whether or not they want to continue with select soccer. As parents, our warm, firm, and supportive guidance help our teens uncover their unique path.

In his book Building Resilience in Children and Teens, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg talks about the importance of parents building the 7 C’s of resilience (resilience being the ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable challenges) in their kids. 

What are the 7 C’s of Resilience?

Let’s take a look:

Competence

Competence describes the feeling of knowing that you can handle a situation effectively. We can help the development of competence by:

  • Helping children focus on individual strengths
  • Focusing on any identified mistakes in specific incidents
  • Empowering children to make decisions
  • Being careful that your desire to protect your child doesn’t mistakenly send a message that you don’t think he or she is competent to handle things
  • Recognizing the competencies of siblings individually and avoiding comparisons

Confidence

A child’s belief in his own abilities is derived from competence. Build confidence by:

  • Focusing on the best in each child so that he or she can see that, as well
  • Clearly expressing the best qualities, such as fairness, integrity, persistence, and kindness
  • Recognizing when he or she has done well
  • Praising honestly about specific achievements; not diffusing praise that may lack authenticity
  • Not pushing the child to take on more than he or she can realistically handle

Connection

Developing close ties to family and community creates a solid sense of security that helps lead to strong values and prevents alternative destructive paths to love and attention. You can help your child connect with others by:

  • Building a sense of physical safety and emotional security within your home
  • Allowing the expression of all emotions, so that kids will feel comfortable reaching out during difficult times
  • Addressing conflict openly in the family to resolve problems
  • Creating a common area where the family can share time (not necessarily TV time)
  • Fostering healthy relationships that will reinforce positive messages

Character

Children need to develop a solid set of morals and values to determine right from wrong and to demonstrate a caring attitude toward others. To strengthen your child’s character, start by:

  • Demonstrating how behaviors affect others
  • Helping your child recognize himself or herself as a caring person
  • Demonstrating the importance of community
  • Encouraging the development of spirituality
  • Avoiding racist or hateful statements or stereotypes

Contribution

Children need to realize that the world is a better place because they are in it. Understanding the importance of personal contribution can serve as a source of purpose and motivation. Teach your children how to contribute by:

  • Communicating to children that many people in the world do not have what they need
  • Stressing the importance of serving others by modeling generosity
  • Creating opportunities for each child to contribute in some specific way

Coping

Learning to cope effectively with stress will help your child be better prepared to overcome life’s challenges. Positive coping lessons include:

  • Modeling positive coping strategies on a consistent basis
  • Guiding your child to develop positive and effective coping strategies
  • Realizing that telling him or her to stop the negative behavior will not be effective
  • Understanding that many risky behaviors are attempts to alleviate the stress and pain in kids’ daily lives
  • Not condemning your child for negative behaviors and, potentially, increasing his or her sense of shame

Control

Children who realize that they can control the outcomes of their decisions are more likely to realize that they have the ability to bounce back. Your child’s understanding that he or she can make a difference further promotes competence and confidence. You can try to empower your child by:

  • Helping your child to understand that life’s events are not purely random and that most things that happen are the result of another individual’s choices and actions
  • Learning that discipline is about teaching, not punishing or controlling; using discipline to help your child to understand that his actions produce certain consequences

Putting all of this information together we find:

*Children need to experience competence to gain confidence.  They need connections with an adult to reinforce those points of competence. They need character to know what they should contribute to their families and the world, and character is forged through deep connection to others. Contribution builds character and further strengthens connections. Children who contribute to their communities gain confidence as they feel more and more competent. All of this leads them to recognize that they can make a difference and change their environments, and this gives them a heightened sense of control. Children with a sense of control believe in their ability to solve problems so they will more tenaciously attack a problem until they find a solution. This newfound area of competence then enhances their confidence, which will be used the next time they need to reinforce their beliefs in their ability to control their environment. When children know they can control their environment, they will more likely use healthy coping strategies because the need to deaden the senses or escape reality will be lessened. A key coping strategy is turning to people with whom you have strong connections!

*Taken from Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, Building Resilience in Children and Teens

Our kids will live up to, or down to our expectations! 

So, it’s important to keep our expectations in perspective, based on their level of maturity and development. Just because they look like adults does not mean they are functioning on an intellectual level as such. Equally important is to be engaging with them from a positive space, taking their unique abilities and temperaments into consideration as we do so.

What questions do you have about the brain and adolescence?  Let’s discuss this at our next session!