Why can’t she think before she acts?

Why does he get so emotional so easily?  It seems like he misinterprets everything I say and do.

How much freedom do I give her to decide how she spends her time?

How do I give him the skills he needs for meaningful relationships?

Do questions like these ever run through your mind?  If so, you might be interested in hearing about some cutting-edge science on the adolescent brain that helps shed some light on these questions.  Let me give you two “teen brain facts,” and then we’ll talk about how to apply that knowledge, so you can make good parenting decisions that will strengthen your relationship with your teenager, and help them become the best person they can be.

Teen Brain Fact #1:  The adolescent brain is changing very rapidly.

Scientists have shown over the last couple of decades that the actual, physical makeup of the human brain changes throughout a human’s lifetime.  And guess when the brain changes the most, aside from just after birth.  That’s right:  during adolescence.

To put it simply, a “blossoming” occurs during pre-adolescence (around age 11-14), when the brain is creating all kinds of new connections.  But then, during the teenage years, a “use it or lose it” process takes over, and brain connections that aren’t being used are “pruned,” similar to the way a tree is pruned.  By cutting back weak connections, the whole brain becomes stronger.  What determines what gets cut and what stays? Experiences determine which brain connections survive and thrive, and which ones whither and eventually disappear.  In fact, teenagers can lose neural connections at the rate of 30,000 per second.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Your teen is losing 30,000 brain connections per second.  You were right all along--they are actually losing their mind.  But unlike everything in Texas, bigger isn't necessarily better, or else the best brain functioning would occur at age 11 or 12.  The brain is actually improved by taking away and pruning down unused connections, so that the more important and valuable ones can thrive.  It’s about creating a leaner, meaner brain that’s faster and more efficient.

Teen Brain Fact #2:  An important part of the brain is “off-line” during adolescence.

As if losing 30,000 brain cells per second weren’t enough, there’s another problem.  There’s a part of your brain (just behind your eyebrows, called the prefrontal cortex) that doesn’t fully mature until the early 20s.  And during the teenage years, it’s under heavy construction.

Why is that important?  Well, because the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is in charge of several functions that most of us expect from other rational, adult humans.  Here’s a simplified list of several functions the PFC is in charge of:

  • Sound decision-making
  • Empathy
  • Considering consequences
  • Balancing emotions
  • Balancing the body
  • Personal insight
  • Morality

Look at this list for a minute.  Does your teenage struggle with any of these functions?  If so, take a deep sigh of relief.   Your teen is normal.

And this explains a lot, doesn’t it?  Your kid does something stupid, and you ask, “What were you thinking?”  They respond, “I wasn’t.”  And they’re right.  They can’t explain it.

The bottom line is that even your smart, responsible teenager can’t always distinguish between a good choice and a bad one.  Their decision-making abilities—pausing before action, thinking about consequences, etc.—go out the window when they’re under stress or experiencing strong emotions, particularly when they’re with peers.

So What Do We Do?

1.  As parents, we need to be their “external” prefrontal cortex since their internal one isn’t always working so well, and help them think through decisions, balance their emotions, etc. We can also help lay the groundwork for developing these different functions we’ve just been discussing by modeling these skills ourselves; by teaching them to think about how someone else feels; by talking with them about their beliefs and values, about making good choices, about consequences.  Anytime we ask them to reflect on their own feelings and behavior, think about others, or talk through choices and possible results of those choices, we’re helping them exercise this part of their brain—the “use it” part, so they don’t “lose it.”

2.  We need to hold them accountable when they make poor choices.  It’s not their fault their brain isn’t fully under their control.  But it is their responsibility to learn to get it under control—and it’s our responsibility as parents to help them.  You can’t dismiss behaviors, because the experiences your child has now will have a large bearing on how they learn to manage their emotions and impulses.  So we need to give them experiences (like consequences) that will increase the likelihood that they’ll actually think before they act.   If they’re not held accountable for taking charge of their impulses, then they’re going to have difficulty doing so for years, and possibly even into adulthood.

3.  We need to be very intentional about how we allow our teens to spend their time.  Remember, their neural connections are being pruned; the ones that remain are the ones that get used, and the ones that are ignored shrink and wither.  So how do you want your teen spending their time while this window of neural opportunity is wide open?  Hours with violent video games or fashion magazines are going to develop certain connections; time spent with friends, or participating in service projects, or eating meals with the family, will develop other circuits.  Give them experiences that help them develop into their best potential.

Obviously, there’s plenty more to be said on this subject.  I’m only scratching the surface here.  But I hope that this information will allow you to be more empathic, intentional, and effective as you parent your teenager.  I’d encourage you to arm yourself with knowledge, trust your instincts, and know that nurturing your connection with your child will always be worth the effort.

[This article is an abridged section of a lecture Dr. Bryson frequently gives.]