The Adolescent Brain- a treacherous frontier

This post is part of the series parenting

Other posts in this series:

  1. The Adolescent Brain- a treacherous frontier (Current)
  2. What science says about bullying
  3. Parenting with a mental illness

My 10-year-old son is the sweetest, most easy going child. Recently, very occasionally and out of the blue, he has had a few moody days. It has been such a shock to me that I have been carefully listening to my friends and patients to hear what it is like to parent an adolescent.

It seems as if most times adolescents are just wonderful. They are passionate, enthusiastic and eager to earn. But parents of adolescents also tell me of the dark side. The times when the teenager is moody, eye rolling and door slamming. When they push boundaries, lie and take dangerous risks. At these times parents feel a genuine anxiety as to whether they will get their kids to adulthood with mind, body and soul intact. These concerns aren’t new. Shakespeare griped in Winter’s Tale:  “I would that there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that the youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.

What is new is this decade’s exposure to digital media. The average teenager is spending nine hours a day on some form of digital device. It is changing their view of the world and the way they socialise, experiment, take risks, exercise. For the first time, we as adults don’t have the experiences of generations past to help guide them.

What we do have, which we have never had before, is an understanding guided by neuroscience.

Over the last two decades, thanks to structural and functional MRI’s (magnetic resonance imaging), we now know that the brain grows and develops throughout life, and not just in early childhood as previously envisioned. Adolescence is a time of rapid consolidation and change in the brain.

Adolescence is the time from when secondary sexual characteristics start to when the last organ matures. That organ is the brain and finishes maturing in the late 20’s.

Two important maturation processes are synaptic pruning and myelination. Synaptic pruning is when the little branches called dendrites in the synapses (the spaces between neurons) get strengthened when used a lot and sheared away when not used. Think of it as pruning a bush, cutting away spindly branches so that strong branches grow better. The pathways that are most used are the ones who get most reinforced. Myelination is the wrapping of neurons in myelin, a kind of insulation, which helps neurons act in a fast and accurate way.

These processes happen from the back of the brain forward, and this is important to realise when we try to  understand adolescent behaviour, because:

  • The limbic system, where our emotional brain sits, is in a deep central part of the brain. It comes “online” early. Thus adolescents do feel things more passionately and more excruciatingly. They are permanently in a state of embarrassment; a condition which is not helped much by a hormonal system which is very much up and running.
  • The striatum is a part of the limbic system which drives risk and reward-seeking behaviours. Thus adolescents seek out new learning experiences, are risk takers and are very vulnerable to addictions. Addictive substances, or addictions such as online gaming or gambling, release dopamine in the striatum. The adolescent striatum is up and firing, and if it gets overstimulated by dopamine, these pathways become very strong. Adolescents can get nicotine craving after only three cigarettes.
  • The Prefrontal cortex moderates these deeper brain structures. It sits right in front of the brain. It is the part of the brain which suppresses risk-taking and enhances empathy. It enables us to consider points of view, plan and regard consequences. It is also the part of the brain which matures last, hence all the problems.

But this staggered development is not an evolutionary fluke. To successfully make the transition from childhood to adulthood, we need to be brave and curious. We need to be able to learn fast. (never before and never again will we be able to learn as quickly as in adolescence).

How can we use this knowledge to help our wayward youth?

  • Pokerface

No matter what they say, keep that Pokerface. So if your daughter comes home saying the kids are making sex videos behind the gym, swallow your revulsion. Have a cup of tea. When you are ready, ask nonjudgemental questions to gauge your child’s involvement and views. If you leap to shock and horror, your little limbic burdened child will withdraw and say no more.

  • Frontal lobe boost

Teenagers love the challenge of ethical dilemmas and thinking through things. Help them think through the positive and negative consequences of actions. They might not be able to access these values in the moment, but you are helping them build pathways. So when they idealise drag racers, put on your pokerface and start with genuine curiosity. Like, wondering if pets sometimes get knocked over by racers? (For most adolescence their mortality seems impossible.) Even better if you have the data to back it. Even better if you somehow got them to source the data – they are a very data-driven generation.

  • Maximum learning.

Adolescence is a time of maximum learning. It is a window of opportunity for the learning opportunities a rich school environment can provide. It is even possible to change IQ during adolescence.

I have already started speaking to my ten year old about healthy brain choices. I tell him that he needs to cut down on screen time and play outside with his friends because it is a “healthy brain choice”, and I have the data to back it. It is also for healthy brain choices that I tell him if he has to experiment with drugs, then he must wait until his brain is mature. I guess I sound a lot like my parents and grandparents!

For now, being scientific about it all is working. I’m most certainly not banking it. It is with some trepidation, but also excitement that I await my children’s’ adolescent years.


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