When our children are toddlers, we anticipate their curiosity. We latch cabinet doors, plug up outlets, block off stairs.
When our children are in elementary school, we establish curfews, limits to how far they can ride their bikes, and how long they can stay at a friend’s house.
As they enter the teen years, many parents/guardians loosen the rules and boundaries, and some figure if the kids are not in diapers, can dress and feed themselves, then they are old enough to care for themselves.
While there is an element of truth to that statement, new studies on brain development, indicate that the teenage brain is not yet fully developed, as once was thought.
Rather, the teen brain goes through a growth spurt, in which the gray matter of the cortex of the brain increases in volume.
The cortex is the thin fold of tissue on the outer folding layer of the brain. It is the center for the processes of thought and memory.
At one time, early childhood was supposed to be the time period when the cortex was thickest; however, recent scans have shown that the cortex reaches its highest volume in early adolescence.
What is even more interesting about this finding is that there is no longer an argument about nature verses nurture, but instead an argument that nature and nurture are both imperative in the development of a teen into adulthood.
“The “nature versus nurture” debate is no longer relevant, as research clearly documents that both have impressive impact. Environment affects the growth and development of brain cells, impacts the wiring of these cells, and affects which cells live or die. More importantly, it is possible through epigenetics for environmental influences such as alcohol and other drugs to turn on or off genes within a person’s genome that is contrary to the usual expression of those genes. Thus, activities and experiences have the potential to impact the development and functioning of the brain, not just during the adolescent years, but for a lifetime,” wrote Jane Anderson, MD, FCP, in the article “The Teen Brain: Under Construction” in the American College of Pediatricians, April 2016.
While there is quite a bit of information about the science of teen brain development, the findings that are most immediate and important for people working with or raising teenagers rests in understanding teen behavior in relation to brain development.
Teens tend to develop their physical senses first.
“Areas involving more basic functions mature first: those involved, for example, in the processing of information from the senses, and in controlling physical movement,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) article “The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction.”
“The parts of the brain responsible for more “top-down” control, controlling impulses, and planning ahead – hallmarks for adult behavior – are among the last to mature,” according to the NIMH article.
“It’s as if, while the other parts of the teen brain are shouting, the Prefrontal Cortex is not quite ready to play referee,” says one article posted by Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, drugfree.org, “Behavior and the Teen Brain.”
The different timing of a teen’s brain development tends to cause the following behaviors:
• difficulty holding back or controlling emotions,
• a preference for physical activity,
• a preference for high excitement and low effort activities (video games, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll),
• poor planning and judgment (rarely thinking of negative consequences),
• more risky, impulsive behaviors, including experimenting with drugs and alcohol -(drugfree.org)
Teens tend to have different sleep patterns than adults, often staying up later and sleeping in later.
“Inadequate sleep is a powerful contributor to irritability,” (NHIM). Fatigue can lead to depression, irritability and an inability to focus.
Because of the increase in gray matter volume, teens have a high intellectual capacity. So while they have a high capacity for learning, they tend toward more risky behaviors and lack the maturity of judgment to discern which choices will result in which consequences.
This information helps to inform parents, educators, counselors and others who work with teens, or even inform teens themselves about reasons why teens act as they do, and begin to generate ideas that will provide for teens a safer and more constructed environment in which to develop into adulthood.
Just as we provide environmental protections for young children during early child development, the research indicates that teens also need parameters to protect their brain development.
According to Anderson, “Parents can help shape their adolescent’s environment, affect the adolescent’s tendency to participate in high-risk behaviors, and can help them in their decision-making and critical thinking skills. An adolescent’s close relationship with his/her parent is protective despite other negative environmental factors. Research clearly shows that parents play a critical role in the healthy development of their adolescents. Health care professionals should acknowledge this, encourage parents to develop healthy relationships with their children, and support them in the parenting role. On a broader level, public health policies that currently treat adolescents as young adults in their abilities to problem solve and make decisions should be re-evaluated and revised based on this new research and will need continued revision as new information emerges.”