The next time your puzzled by your teenager’s behaviour, remember: his brain is operating like a car without any brakes. The more primitive parts of his brain are like the accelerator, they’re already well developed and he has his foot there most of the time. As a result he’ll take risks, act on impulse and seek novel experiences. But the areas that control planning and reasoning have not yet fully developed. As a result, teens are less likely to, stop and think before making any decisions and choices, nor consider the consequences of their actions.
In the 1970s, it was pretty much assumed that brain development was essentially complete by the age of three. This was because from birth to the age of three the brain was physically growing. Today we know this is far from the case. The brain is fully grown by the age of three but continues to mature and develop throughout adolescence and even into early adulthood. The teenage years, in particular, are a very active and important time for brain development.
During adolescence, there is a rapid increase in the interconnections between the brain cells. Gray matter grows, followed by a refinement, or “pruning,” of the connections and pathways. We also see an increase in the white matter, or myelin, which acts as an insulator and enhances communication at the cellular level. It is essential for coordinated thought, action and behaviour.
The instinctual parts of the brain develop first, followed by the regions that control reasoning, logic, planning to help us think before we act. In particular, the Amygdala, which is a more primitive part of the brain is responsible for gut reactions and emotions and develops at an advanced rate. Matter of fact it said to be in a state of flux.
Research has shown adults and adolescents use their brains differently when it comes to reasoning, solving problems, or dealing with stressful situations. For example, teenagers tend to rely more on these instinctual structures, like the Amygdala, and less on the more advanced areas, like the frontal lobes, which are associated with rational thinking.
Teenagers are less likely to use the part of the brain that asks, “Am I making the right decision? What’s the worst that can happen?” It’s not that they don’t have a frontal lobe; they just access it more slowly.
There are also two other areas of the brain backed by research that undergo significant growth and development during adolescence. These are the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain, and the cerebellum, which is located at the base of the brain.
The corpus callosum creates a pathway from one side of the brain to the other and facilitates problem solving. The cerebellum is responsible for physical coordination and movement but also helps organize our thought processes. All of these anatomical structures like the Amygdala, the frontal lobes, the corpus callosum, and the cerebellum, are physically changing and maturing throughout adolescence. This is why the adolescent years are considered a time as emotional turbulence.
Based on this evidence of brain development, teenagers are more likely to act on impulse, misread social cues and others’ emotions, get into fights and accidents, or engage in more serious risk-taking behaviours, like driving recklessly or while intoxicated.
If your parent or carer of a teenager I suggest using the following 7 tips to help them “think more” before making any decisions as well as help them navigate through their emotionally turbulent years of adolescence-
1. Teach your teenager to recognise his feelings.
Growing up is a very confusing process, with so many new things to understand and new emotions to experience. This can be quite an overwhelming time for any teenager as he may not understand what he’s feeling. But if he’s able to understand his emotions he may be able to express them much better instead of those temper tantrums. Understanding our emotions is the first step to managing them.
2. Describe a particular risk-taking scenario and ask them, “What would you do in this situation?” and discuss possible consequences. By doing this your teaching your teen to stop and think before acting. You can also teach him other ways to cope with the problem, such as using humor to see the funny side when a situation is difficult.
3. Watch a movie together and ask your teen what they think each character is thinking and feeling? Discuss what the characters could have said and done differently.
4. Buy your teen some books to read that address feelings and expressing emotions in healthy ways. Do a Google search to find the best resources. Teenagers themselves write some of these books.
5. Teach your teen to delay gratification. This is the ability to resist a craving and the immediate reward it brings. If your teen wants to purchase some expensive clothing, the latest gadget or even a car, open a savings account for him and tell him to save up for the item. This way he will learn to wait and save up so that he’ll be rewarded in the end. Also as a parent, congratulate your teen on the effort, patience, and discipline they put in to saving up for whatever they wanted. This shifts the focus from the external reward they saved up for, to a feeling of internal gratification and mastery over temptation.
6. Encourage your teen to do some physical activities. This will help him burn energy, so that he will not get reckless with his actions. Physical activities help in keeping fit and healthy but also contributes to self-efficacy as it instills self-discipline.
7. As a parent learn to delay your reactions. It might anger or hurt you when your teen behaves out of impulse. Try to maintain calm. Walk away at first and calm yourself down by taking some deep breaths. Then try to communicate calmly with him. By raising your voice your communicating another message to him. Instead, tell him that what he just did was not nice. When he sees you responding calmly, he will calm down and reflect on what he just did as well. Remember children are like wet cement, what you say to them leaves a lasting impression.