The transition from childhood to adulthood is no joke. Amongst many things, adolescence is that perplexing phase of self-discovery, where one latches onto ideals of freedom, finds fresh interests, and falls for new people. It’s also a bloody nightmare for most parents.
Historically teens have always got slack for being bratty, rebellious and simply put- annoying little shits. The judgment against them is real and the emergence of their own views or ways about doing things is regarded as nothing but mood swings and hormonal fits.
It’s a sad state of affairs.
What if there was more to the story though, one that we haven’t bothered to dig deeper and understand more about that could, maybe just maybe, help us see things from their perspective.
Enter Brain Science.
If you must know something about the pink loaf sitting in our heads, driving our existence, it’s a good idea to start with the orbitofrontal cortex. This is a part of the brain’s frontal lobe responsible for cognitive development and decision-making. Like most of us humans, this section of the brain is a work in progress, especially during those precious teenage years.
Imagine being expected to deliver a successful quarter without a full download of the business. Seems unfair, doesn’t it? Yet our teens are perpetually judged for their inability to make wise choices and control their emotions when the development of this crucial part of their cortex is literally still under development.
Meanwhile, the amygdala is relied upon to make decisions and solve problems. Except that there’s a tiny problem with that. The amygdala is infamously associated with instinctive and impulsive behavior thus making these prime years emotionally turbulent. So with an immature prefrontal cortex and an activated amygdala, those aggressive reactions and unexpected fits are almost inevitable. If you’re looking to develop some empathy for your teenage child or sibling, now is probably a good time.
But the pressures don’t stop here.
Living in this digital age, we’re all well acquainted with the toxic influences of social media on young minds, particularly issues of social comparisons, low self worth, anxiety, and depression. The anatomy of the teenage brain has a role to play here too. The medial pre-frontal cortex guides their notion of self and drives self-esteem. With no surprise, it becomes awfully active during adolescence and peaks around mid-teen years.
This is where self-image, social situations, and group pics become very confronting. It also explains their tendencies to spend inexplicable hours posting the ‘right’ selfies in attempts to gain social approval. The last thing any teen wants to hear is a millionth reminder about clearing their face acne or perhaps losing/ gaining an extra few pounds.
Of course, no conversation with a teen is complete without asking them what career path they want to choose. Let’s turn back to the area of the brain that guides higher-order cognition, the prefrontal cortex. Things like thinking about the future, career decisions, and long- term goal setting fall under this domain. But guess what, this area continues to develop until the twenties and ironically enough our societies push kids to have their entire life paths figured out as early as they hit middle school. Cut them some slack people!
Scientists agree that the development of the teenage brain is fascinating in more ways than one. There’s a bit of loss and gain in the synapses through a process called pruning, much like pruning the old branches of a tree for new strong ones to grow.
As young boys and girls mature between 13-18, they also lose some of their grey matter, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because this is the brain’s way of fine-tuning connection between other cells. This is where learning and growth get real for teens, because how they spend their time during this phase becomes hardwired in their cells for life! This also explains why a few experiments with cigs in school end up sticking as a bad habit through adulthood.
If cells could talk, they’d most likely say- reading books during these developmental years trumps binging on Netflix, fellas.
It’s hard enough to cope with changes in the brain, let alone changes in expectations from the external world. What teens need is fewer labels and more empathy. Constant criticism only backfires with more aggressive tendencies. But connection is the savior. There’s nothing that supportive relationships cannot get them through.
The underlying message is clear. Teens have a fair amount of responsibility for the kind of choices they make. But they also need their supposedly intelligent superiors to facilitate in their making of healthier choices. No human can give what they do not have. Having healthy and meaningful interaction equips them to form healthy bonds with others into adulthood which secures their well-being.
Empathy and compassion are like nature’s prescription for the development of their full cognitive potential.
May this be a reminder for the next time you feel like shutting the door on your upset teen.