Sunday, January 10, 2016

Teenage Brains: Why Do They Act Like That?

August 12, 2014

How has this summer been for you and your family, especially if you still have school-age children and teenagers in your home?

When our son was 10-years-old, James and I started a group for parents of preteens at our home. Twice a month, these families met in our house on Saturdays. While our 4th and 5th graders met with their youth counselors, parents met to study books and learn about parenting adolescents. One time, some of us went to Central California to reach Chinese; another time, my family joined a mission trip to reach Native Indians living in a reservation in Northern California. It helped to go through our son's pre-teen and teenage years with other parents!

Are you getting anxious and frustrated about how your teenagers are spending their time? Find out what might be going on inside.

If you're raising a teenager, no doubt your mantra is "What were you thinking?" Teens aren't known for making the best decisions. Or planning ahead. Or considering consequences. The list of patience-trying teen behaviors goes on and on... Here's the good news. They'll get over it. Here's the startling news. When they say, "But, Mom, it isn't my fault!" they may be partially right.

It's their brains.

In terms of human development, the brain undergoes two periods of enormous growth: from birth to about age four, and then again from about ages 10 to 14. Dr. Jay Giedd, of the National Institute of Mental Health, says of the adolescent and teen years, "In many ways, it's the most tumultuous time of brain development since coming out of the womb."

Whereas an infant's and toddler's brain is literally growing, a teenager's brain is remodeling itself, mostly by making and pruning connections. Instead of having a screw loose, as the old saying goes about someone who makes lousy decisions, teens—metaphorically speaking—have wires loose.

Up to this point, adolescents and teens have mostly been acting from their emotions (think limbic system) and pleasure-and-reward systems (think amygdala), which explains a lot about their behavior. Now, as they approach and go through puberty, they are preparing to become adults, and their brains know it. It's time for the brain to rewire itself, adding millions of new connections between those emotional-impulsive behavioral centers and the frontal lobes, especially the prefrontal cortex.

This is the "executive" center of the brain, the area that is active when we rationally assess situations, consider the consequences of our and others' actions, set priorities—generally all those things we expect our teens to know how to do but that their brains are not yet fully wired to do. The prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to be developed, and the rewiring will go on well into their 20s.

At the same time that all these new connections are forming, your teen's brain is strengthening already existing connections and pruning less used ones. Whatever your teen is focusing on—sports, study, friendships or, conversely, zoning out in front of the TV or endlessly playing video games—gets reinforced by the brain. Those connective pathways that are not continually activated get pared away.

What's crucial about this rewiring is that it influences the skills teens take with them into adulthood. To some extent the old adage "use it or lose it" holds true.

To be fair, this spurt of brain remodeling is not an excuse for a teen's sometimes exasperating behavior. But it does provide parents insight into why teens think something is a great idea when you don't, why they can't seem to plan or organize when you think doing so is a no-brainer, why they act without considering consequences that you think are incredibly obvious. Simply put, at this point in their development, teen brains have problems separating what's important from what's not so important.

So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage?

Experts suggest strategies that include being clear in your instructions and guiding your teen with advice, but doing so with a soft touch. Your teen needs to "practice" being an adult without being punished for not yet being one. Cultivate the patience to allow them to make mistakes with their growing independence. They are learning to curb their impulses and mediate their emotions. They are learning reasoning, logic and analysis. Whether they show it or not, they will look to the adults in their lives—meaning you—as examples.

This is a trying time for many parents, for while teens might seem to be pushing you away as they "practice" being independent, they also will be secretly watching and learning from you since you are the most important adult in their life.

Dear Parents, Remember how frustrated you were as a teenager when your parents (or teachers) did not seem to understand, accept, or respect you as a human being? Next time, instead of yelling, "What you are thinking?" try to keep your cool and listen with respect and curiosity. Use your adult mind and heart to find some truth in what your teenage-child is saying, even if it seems he or she totally gets it wrong.

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)
Author's content used with permission, © Claire Communications

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