Your Teen’s Brain Is A Work In Progress
Have you ever looked at your kid and wondered, “What in the world were you thinking?!” Perhaps it was an ill-thought-out “adventure” that went terribly wrong, a poorly timed comment, or just a total disregard for rational thought. Whatever the case, we have all been there, staring at our teen with dumbfounded looks that these children we have worked so hard to teach and train could possibly be so… inept. But take comfort, my friend, your teen is not the only one. In fact, it has very little to do with your individual kid or the countless time you have spent trying to raise them and almost entirely to do with the fact that the adolescent brain is under major construction. It’s a lot like trying to use a Port-A-Potty. All the necessary essentials appear to be there, but the lack of actual substantial materials leaves you with a lot of strange smells, bumping into things, and treacherous balancing acts, and you walk away wishing you could bathe yourself in GermX and just forget the whole experience.
Our teenagers are attempting to take on life with a large and important part of their reasoning ability underdeveloped. It’s no wonder they are fumbling around and driving us crazy in the process. Our kids aren’t intentionally being forgetful, impulsive, or irrational. They simply can’t help the fact that brains don’t fully develop until around age 25.
So, what does this mean for you? Hopefully, a better understanding of adolescent brain development will give you more grace and patience for your teen as well as more confidence and hope for you as a parent. By learning about brain development, we can discover tools that can help all of us make it through this construction process a little smoother and a lot more peacefully. Let’s first look at what exactly is going on for our kids, and then we will talk about some practical steps to help them through this process.
The connectivity of the brain moves from the back of the brain to the front. The last place to “hard wire” is the frontal lobe, which controls the “brakes and steering” and their impulse control.
- They will make mistakes and not always connect cause with effect.
- They may struggle to make rational decisions.
- Risk assessment is lacking. They may have limited impulse control.
- They may struggle with executive functioning and their ability to focus.
- They may be forgetful and have difficulties remembering to do something.
The prefrontal cortex is improperly balanced with the emotional part of their brains. The prefrontal lobe is the thinking and CEO-center of the brain. It controls decision-making, problem-solving, judgment, and self-control. For our kids, this means:
- They have a higher urgency and intensity of emotional reactions. They may be moody and fly off the handle at times.
- A study showed that 50% of teenagers had trouble reading facial expressions, which led to miscommunication. They also discovered that adolescents may read your concern as anger.
- They may react quickly from the emotional part of their brains due to the lack of development in the reasoning area of the brain.
- Sometimes they may find it difficult to have empathy.
We can clearly see from the research that our kids are trying to navigate life, missing some very key components to their emotional, social, and mental functioning. Some of their behaviors are beginning to make a little more sense now, right? This knowledge is great for improving our own outlook on our kids, but let’s talk about how we can utilize this knowledge to actually help our kids.
I know, I know… Teenagers are infamous for their bizarre sleep habits, whether staying up until 2 AM or wanting to sleep half the day away (or both!). But getting the right amount of sleep is huge for emotional regulation and decision-making. Adolescents need between 9-12 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Chronic sleep deprivation not only impairs decision-making skills but also lessens their ability to learn new information and leads to aggressive behavior or even depression. The brain needs sleep to develop, so encourage your kid to have healthy sleeping habits.
Train them to think
It may sound a little silly to have to train someone to simply think, especially someone who is practically grown, but that is exactly what our kids need. If we want to train them to think through things, we need to provide opportunities to do so. Don’t try to control your child or align them with your way of thinking. Start trusting them to think for themselves. Ask questions instead of giving instructions. Get them to think proactively. If they are concerned about a decision or situation, guide them into thinking through solutions and strategies on their own. Coach them on how to link cause and effect by sharing your own stories and experiences (and let them put two and two together.)
Teach responsibility through being held accountable
We want our kids to be responsible and independent, but we need to recognize they need help to master these skills. Repetition is important to our teenager’s brain development. If they don’t put something away, continue to remind them. Have them follow through and complete a task. Their over-active brains also struggle to set limits. As the parent, you can teach them to become self-disciplined by setting the amount of time for certain activities such as time on the phone or the internet. Rather than criticizing them if they forget to do something, encourage them to develop skills that will strengthen this part of their brain. Sometimes, we will have to step in and set rules, limits, and consequences. Studies have shown that adolescents who rarely or have never experienced negative consequences for risky behavior are more likely to keep repeating similar behaviors. Thrill-seeking produces dopamine, the feel-good hormone, in the adolescent brain, which motivates them to repeat the behavior. We need to hold our kids accountable for their decisions by setting boundaries and following through on consequences.
Create positive experiences
Help them to boost their feel-good hormone, dopamine, in positive ways. Encourage them to try new things—a new sport, academic pursuit, hobby, or a community or religious activity. Model pursuing your own interests and hobbies. As always, and perhaps the most important of all is to be there for your child. Have open lines of communication where they can come to you and you truly listen to how they are feeling and what they are going through. Have patience, offer grace, and be the kind of person you want your child to be. Finding healthy ways to crank up their dopamine will help brain development and keep them from seeking that thrill in risky or off-limit behaviors.
These years of brain construction can be tricky. But just as much as you struggled through the dreaded trip to the Port-a-Potty, your kid is trying to bumble their way through adolescence as smoothly as possible. Remember we were all there once, and know that eventually, they will get past this. In the meantime, give everyone in the house (yourself included) an abundant amount of grace and patience! And you may want to stock up on the GermX.