Brain science has been all the rage these days, and I have to admit that I too am a neuroscience fan. Scientists do caution us that the ever-growing field studying how brains work is still a young one, and there is much we don’t know. So it’s best not to oversell the insights gained from these studies. However, they can be helpful both in giving a context to things that we already observe happening and a new way of understanding behavior. One area in which brain science can be particularly helpful is as a guide for parents and therapists who are scratching their heads at children who’ve hit the teen years and have become challenging in new and sometimes unexpected ways.
In this post, I will summarize some findings from adolescent neuroscience research that have proven helpful in enhancing my own work with teens and their parents.
Adolescence is a Software Upgrade
I just downloaded the new iPhone software and, while I see so much potential in this new operating system, it requires a good deal of fumbling and working around glitches to become a skilled user. As most people well know, adolescence is the only time in the human developmental span to mirror infancy in the number of changes happening to the body. These shifts are matched by corresponding reorganization and optimization of the brain. In the teen years, young people are going through a software upgrade neurologically in which circuitry is being consolidated, networks are being reorganized, connections are being made stronger and more expedient, and unused pathways are wearing away (more on that later). This upgrade happens in stages and is a bottom-up and back-to-front process during which the reward centers of the brain are surging forward, while the executive center (the frontal cortex) is developing more slowly. This difference in timing means that teens can be exquisitely attracted to activities that yield easy pleasures and social connection while not necessarily fully considering the ramifications. It is not that they can’t think it through, but that doing so is a much slower, less streamlined process. They are fumbling along, like a user with a new phone, not yet skilled in the ways of maximizing its potential.
The Teen Years are a Time of High Influence
Because adolescence is a stage of great changes in the brain, it is also a time of great potential. The brain is what scientists refer to as “plastic” (i.e.., moldable, shapeable), particularly during the teen years, which means it is susceptible to all kinds of influence. The net result is that adolescents can learn more quickly, and experiences potentially have a strong impact. (Just think of how much the music you listened to in your teen years still sticks with you today.) It also, unfortunately, means that the teen years are ones in which people are particularly vulnerable, to both mental illness and the formation of unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors. This openness to experience can help to explain the uptick of emotional storms. These too can be related back to the issue of processing. For example, studies have found that adolescents tend to process their reactions to facial expressions and emotional stimuli more commonly with their amygdala (the emotional center) than their frontal lobes (the rational/impulse control center). This means that the act of more conscious reflection on situations of negative emotions often requires coaching and support, as does quieting the anxiety and anger that can manifest as a result of social situations. This is why teens need stable adult figures who already know who they themselves are, and who are consistent (with reasonable flexibility) in the face of their adolescent struggle for integration.
Use It or Lose It
The best analogy I have found for explaining brain development comes from authors Sercombe & Paus (2009). They suggest we think of the brain like an unchartered region, say the Australian outback. The first people to arrive to this region forge their own paths, and subsequent travelers follow those paths but then diverge in a number of directions. Over time, the most heavily used paths are easier to travel and eventually are paved to become efficient roads; the lesser used paths grow over and their remnants fade with time. The child brain is that set of multiple pathways that are blazed with the countless pieces of information that children take in and the hundreds of things they learn. The adult brain can be thought of as what we have here in the U.S.: a fairly reliable highway system that get us there more directly and more efficiently. The adolescent brain is the transition between the two.
It is during this time that pruning occurs, a process in which unused synaptic connections (potentialities) die away, and circuitry that is most heavily used becomes stronger through myelination (an insulation of sorts that speeds processing in synapses). Because of pruning and myelination, adolescence becomes a time in which new experiences can maximize potential before the wiring for that potential changes. (This is why some skills are acquired more easily before teen brain development than after.) White and Swartzwelder (2013) encourage us to think of the teen brain as a “living lump of clay” waiting to be molded. Being primed for learning is often a strong impetus that drives teens toward exploring their world, by engaging in both healthy and risky activities.
As brain research continues, we will no doubt discover more to add to the conversation, or perhaps to even contradict the findings above. For more information on this topic, see the resources below.
Further Reading for Parents:
Strauch, B. (2003). The primal teen: What the new discoveries about the teenage brain tell us about our kids. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
White, A. M., & Swartzwelder, S. (2013). What are they thinking?!: The straight facts about the risk-taking, social-networking, still-developing teen brain. New York, NY: Norton.
Further Reading for Professionals:
Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Somerville, L. H. (2011). Braking and accelerating of the adolescent brain. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 21-33.
Sercombe, H., & Paus, T. (2009). The ‘teen brain’ research: An introduction and implications for practitioners. Youth & Policy, 103, 25-37.
Sturman, D. A., & Moghaddam, B. (2011). The neurobiology of adolescence: Changes in brain architecture, functional dynamics, and behavioral tendencies. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(8), 1704-1712.
Yurgelun-Todd, D. (2007). Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 17(2), 251-257.
Image: © CC- Attribution ShareAlike Dareen Hester for Openphoto.net