What’s Happening in the Developing Teen Brain

In another post I described the phases of child brain growth. At each phase, different areas of the brain are developed. Two important things happen during each phase – blossoming and pruning.

Dendrites are the tiny filaments on a brain cell that reach out to and connect with other brain cells. This is what happens when the brain wires itself for knowledge and skills. During blossoming, the developing area experiences intense over-growth of dendrites, enabling many times more connections than will be needed for an adult brain.

Next is “pruning,” a critical period during which the brain “uses or loses” the dendrites. If the teen uses the brain cells, the connections will be reinforced and strengthened. The unused dendrites slowly atrophy and are absorbed by the body. The remaining neural pathways are the foundation for using that area of the brain during the rest of life. More learning is still possible, but instead of resulting from new brain cells, it happens when the remaining foundation cells interconnect with each other.

In my opinion, the most critical area of brain development is the prefrontal cortex. While the rest of the brain handles “what is,” the frontal lobes handle what things mean and imagining what could be. Often called the “executive” part of the brain, this area processes intuition and logic, cause-and-effect understanding, problem solving, decision making, foresight, planning and organization. These capabilities, along with language processing, is what make human beings smarter than other animals.

Scientists now know that prefrontal lobe brain development doesn’t begin until kids reach puberty. Blossoming begins about age 11-12 for boys, and a year earlier for girls. Pruning then occurs during the rest of adolescence, which can extend until about age 25. After that, construction of the young adult’s foundation for conceptual thinking and learning is complete, once and for all.

Why am I telling you this? Because this information gives new significance to adolescence and the teen years. While this is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to construct the foundation for conceptual and logical thinking, the over-development of brain cells makes it very difficult to do so. This means that at a time when teenagers’ bodies are upset by hormonal growth, new body sensations and strong emotions, they are singularly ill-equipped to understand what’s happening to them and to manage their feelings. After the prefrontal lobes begin to develop, teenagers will be better able to deal with all that. But exercising the prefrontal lobes at that age is like asking them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

The answer is, they are unlikely to make the best of it without help. They need parenting, coaching, mentoring and teaching. Just as infants need stimulation to fine-tune perceptual skills and toddlers need interaction to build language skills, teenagers need encouragement to build thinking skills. At a time when teenagers are struggling with impulsiveness and emotion, adults need to appreciate why teenagers behave the way they do and what to do about it.

Two things are needed. First, adults have to maintain a trusting relationship with the child. This means unconditional love, understanding, role modeling, communication, patience and encouragement. In other words, if the teenager’s erratic behavior provokes a hostile reaction with adults, the result will be alienation and the so-called “generation gap.” This all-too-frequent relationship disaster means that the child won’t heed even the best coaching.

The other imperative is to stimulate the child to think conceptually. Questions like, “Why do you think that happened?” and “If you do this, what do you think will happen next?” cause a child to engage the frontal lobes. The more they try to understand, reason through problems, control their emotions, use their imagination and focus on goal achievement, the more the frontal lobe brain cells will strengthen during this critical time of life.

In short, adolescence is a huge turning point in life.

The window of opportunity opens at puberty and closes in the early twenties. Everyone knows it’s a difficult time of life, but almost no one knows how high the stakes are. The lucky kids are the ones who have parents, teachers and coaches who can do these two things for them. These relationships determine whether a teenager will grow up equipped to pursue being a doctor, a lawyer, an executive, an engineer, a scientist, or other professional careers. Or, if the child is alienated and follows his or her natural impulses, then the individual may get into trouble with addictions, gangs, pregnancy or even suicide. If this happens, the opportunity of the teenage years is wasted and the survivors advance into adult life with limited intellectual capacity.

Most people think it’s about staying out of trouble. Few understand what’s really at stake. If you’d like more information, you might start with this web page set up by PBS to promote its programming on this topic.

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