The Teenage Brain

This month’s issue of Scientific American contains an interesting article entitled, The Amazing Teenage Brain. It seems that the teenage brain is no longer viewed as an incomplete, poorly developed adult brain but is characterized by flexibility or plasticity in its ability to readily adapt to changes in thought patterns and socialization. However, this flexibility brings with it susceptibility to dangerous behaviors and in some cases mental disorders. By using PET scans and functional MRIs, researchers are beginning to understand that problems can arise from a mismatch of the rates of maturation between the limbic system which controls emotions and neural networks in the prefrontal cortex that are associated with sound judgment, impulse control and long range planning; the kind of thinking associated with the adult behavior. The changes in the prefrontal cortex continue well into a person’s twenties when the mismatch between the limbic system diminishes. We now recognize that for unknown reasons puberty is starting much earlier than in previous generations so this means that in a neurophysiological sense this mismatch between areas of the brain can extend over more years than was previously known. It can seem like adolescence extends from middle school to well after graduation from college. Risk taking, peer pressure and a rejection of parents while troubling, are the result of normal brain development in a teenager.
In the past psychoanalysts like Erik Erikson have described stages in human psychological development that parallel what neuroscientists are now learning through their research. Rejection of parental authority was seen as a necessary step in the creation of one’s own identity between the ages of 12 and 18. We may no longer accept psychoanalytic theories about the why of human behavior, however, we are now forced to admit that analysts were astute observers of behavior and that we are now at a point when the neuroscience may form a sound basis for their observations. Scientists tell us that brain maturation at this age is characterized not by an increase in the size of the brain but in the number and kind of connections made between areas of the brain. There is an increase in myelin, a fatty substance that form the ‘insulation” of the neural “wiring” leading to a marked increase in the white matter of the brain during puberty. This increase in myelination helps increase interconnectivity in the brain and scientists believe that between infancy and adulthood brain networking increases 3,000 fold.

So what does this all mean, especially for parents? First of all, we can understand that teenage behavior is often not something that is “chosen” but more a characteristic of normal growth and development. Secondly, in most cases teenage rebellion is not something that can or should be medicated, it is not a pathology. For years now, I have been advising new parents about the latency stage of psychological development, the stage that occurs between the ages of 4 and 10. There is no need to believe in Freudian theories about the libido to appreciate that this time represents the calm before the storm of puberty. This is the time when the endless days and sleepless nights of feeding and  diaper changes seem like a distant memory. It is also when  the “terrible twos” are well behind you as a parent. It is the time in a child’s life when they will form their memories of childhood that they will carry with them for a lifetime. It is also a time when the child’s personality begins to emerge, when a parent can have a conversation with their child, when the foundations for learning at school are created. It can be a fun, loving and joyous time for both parent and child and should be cherished by parents.  It is a time for vacations and field trips, sleep overs, hobbies and participation in sports and other team activities. Paradoxically, however, it can be a time when parents feel that they need more time for themselves, needing a break from the hard work of child rearing in the early years.

Economists now tell us that middle class income, in real terms, has been stagnant for well over thirty years now. Facing increasing financial pressure, parents feel the need to work longer and harder to provide for their families. This push to get ahead often seems to occur during this latency stage as parents feel the increasing financial demands of their children’s future needs. This is the time period that we as parents, later in life, reflect upon and ask ourselves, “where did all the time go?” So, I tell parents to strive for quality time with their children, as much as their situation allows. Children at this stage crave interaction with their parents, something that disappears all too quickly in adolescence. Vacations are important as is having at least some meals together on a regular basis. This is also a time for structure, setting boundaries and creating a balance between school work and play (some of it outdoors). Getting adequate sleep is important as is unstructured playtime and resisting the temptation of surrendering your children to the virtual digital world. That struggle will happen soon enough given the pace of technology today. The seeds of a peaceful puberty are planted and nourished during the latency stage. The article doesn’t give any recommendations for parents but I think that love and caring attention are the best preparation for dealing with the amazing teenage brain.

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