This is a contributed post by Christine Carter of TheMomcafe.com
Parents often wonder what is going on in the minds of our teens and why they’re so inconsistent in what they’re doing, thinking, saying, and feeling.
We shake our heads and sigh in disbelief when we are baffled and often blindsided by some of their reckless decisions and impulsive behaviors.
Our teens can act so intelligent, responsible, and mature; then, out of nowhere, they will do or say something that makes no sense. These are the times we might honestly question their ability to manage their lives responsibly and worry about them growing up successfully.
Then there are the entirely unpredictable mood swings. One minute they are loving and considerate; the next, they are grumpy and isolative.
Living with a teen feels like walking on a battlefield of landmines you navigate cautiously, hoping you don’t step on one unexpectedly.
What it feels like to be a teenager today
During adolescence, our teens are trying to figure out who they are in a world that demands so much of them. Their lives are filled with relentless pressure to do and be more than they can comprehend, let alone achieve.
They are learning to manage their time and stress with all their activities, academics, work, and friends. They constantly feel the need to fit into the precarious social circles, full of peer pressure that feeds and fuels their reckless behavior. They are journeying through the ever-changing cultural and societal landscape that inundates their developing identity with confusion and negativity.
Then, of course, add puberty with their raging hormones flooding through their bodies, and you have tremendous stress and strain, uncertainty, and pain.
Our teens are facing so many hard things during these tough years, and on top of everything else, their brains aren’t developed enough to manage it all very well.
What is going on in your teenager’s brain?
When we sift through every detail of their lives and all they are experiencing, we also need to understand that their brains are still under massive construction and won’t fully develop until their mid-twenties.
Specifically, their pre-frontal cortex (PFC) doesn’t develop completely until early adulthood, so teens must rely on the amygdala (AMG), which usually develops much earlier but focuses on emotions, impulses, and instincts.
Their brains are also hard at work building Myelin, which adds an insulating layer within the brain’s cellular network that helps strengthen the most essential functioning signals to communicate more rapidly and effectively.
So, how does all this unfinished brain development affect our teens? It’s a key component to understanding pretty much everything about them.
Why is the development of the teen brain so complicated?
The PFC and AMG are two distinct parts of the brain that focus on two different processes. The mismatched balance creates a confusing dichotomy that interferes with our teens’ emotional health and cognitive functioning.
Let’s closely examine these two critical areas of the teen brain to gain a deeper understanding of their development and impact on our teens.
What’s the big deal about the Pre-Frontal Cortex?
The frontal lobe (PFC) of your teen’s brain operates in the areas of reasoning, self-control, judgment, decision-making, processing complex information, logic, and creativity. It also controls their understanding of social norms and awareness of the consequences of their behavior. The PFC also functions mood regulation, memory storage, and personality development. This is the part of their brain that is not fully developed.
How many teens exhibit behaviors that prove this to be true? (And the parental choir sings: AllOfThem!)
No matter how intelligent, responsible, or respectful our teens can be, this is why they can do the most ridiculous and random things that make us shake our heads and say, “What were you thinking?”
And clearly, we now understand the answer. Our teens can sometimes make poor decisions, experience mood swings, and be forgetful, among so many other things on that long list, simply because they don’t have the brain capacity to function effectively and successfully in these areas of their lives yet.
What is this Amygdala all about?
Interestingly, what develops fully by their teen years are two small, almond-sized amygdalae (AMG) that are located on the temporal sides of the brain.
The amygdalae are responsible for strong emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness. This portion of the brain develops long-term recall of memories connected to intense emotions, which develops a recurring fear or alertness around that event. (For example, every time you go to the beach, you feel anxious because you remember when you witnessed someone drowning several years ago.)
The amygdalae also play a significant role in the libido, which fuels sexual activity and drive. Go figure. This portion of the brain develops rapidly, filling our kids with a rollercoaster of emotions, a surging sex drive, and intense reactions to traumatic situations.
Because their frontal lobe isn’t fully developed, they struggle to rationally process, control, and manage all these powerful emotive swells that are also ignited by their raging hormones.
The Battle of the Teen Brain
So, you have the (AMG) battle of intense emotions and instinctual responses (and throw in those hormones) versus the (PFC) self-control and reasoning functions, and during these teen years, the AMG often dominates the game.
Let me explain it like this: The PFC and AMG are two elite teams playing in a highly competitive, physically aggressive hockey game, often colliding with one another over and over again at top speed on the ice with the force of sheer instinct and drive. The AMG is constantly on the offense as the PFC tries to control the defense with strategies they haven’t effectively developed yet. Things continuously get out of control as we often witness the AMG team dominate poor, ill-equipped PFC.
PFC tries to practice good judgment and self-control, reasoning, and planning by playing solid defense, but oftentimes, emotions, aggression, sex drive, and instinctual responses take over to score a goal or two.
But don’t give up on PFC. They are working hard to make a comeback!
Our teenagers need hands-on coaches to counsel them through all the various plays and strategies that can unfold unpredictably while teaching them how to control and manage the AMG team.
They need to develop new coping skills with lots of practice and discipline, along with continual encouragement and positive reinforcement. They need us to be their referees, setting the structure and guidelines, rules and penalties, so our kids can learn that their behavior has consequences. Most of all, our teens need to know they are supported through this scary, fast-paced, exhausting, stressful, exhilarating, exciting, discouraging, confusing, and demanding game of life they are currently living.
It’s a lot. And for us parents trying to coach them through it all, it can feel equally as confusing.
The teen brain has a tremendous capacity.
That’s not to say our teens can’t make good decisions, process their life experiences, or practice self-control with discernment and forethought. It doesn’t mean their frontal lobe isn’t working at all.
It simply means there’s a lot more growth to come, and there will be times we see evidence that development is happening.
During the teen years, our kids are developing their personalities and learning how to manage their emotions. They are figuring out how their behavior results in good and bad consequences. Their brains are exploding with growth, and it will be years before things settle down in there and they can fully mature.
With this knowledge, parents need to be more patient and understanding with our teens’ evolving process of growing into an adult. With this understanding, we can help guide them through all their challenging experiences–and enjoy them a little bit more, too.
Looking for more information on the teenage brain? Check out this book: The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
Parenting teens and tweens is hard, but here are some articles other parents found useful.
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