This post is Part 2 of a 4 Part series about teenagers and how to parent consciously. In Part 1, I’ll provide general information to normalize teen behavior, while in Parts 2 and 3, I’ll share important information about the teenage brain and suggest ways people can consciously parent as they watch the dynamic transition from adolescence to adulthood. Finally, in Part 4, I’ll share my thoughts on bullying. I’ll give examples of teens I have worked with in order to reassure parents that support is available for both teens and their parents.
The Teen Brain
Recent neuroscience research has found a number of differences between the teen brain and the adult brain. My intention in sharing this information about brain development is to ease parents’ anxiety by letting them know what every normal teen goes through. This information can also help adults to better understand, have more compassion, and respond more effectively to challenges with their teens.
The ventral striatal (VS) circuit is the part of the brain that is involved with motivation. There has been research that shows less activity in this area of the teen brain, and this might explain adult observations about a lack of motivation or drive in teens. In addition, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which helps us focus our attention, screen out unnecessary distractions, tolerate frustration, allow ourselves to settle down, assess danger, and manage our emotional impulses and reactions is not completely developed in adolescents.
As teen growth spurts begin, the part of the brain preparing for growth produces dendrites, the branches at the end of the brain cells. Blossoming occurs when the amount of new branches exceeds the number that survive. During this time period, the experiences that teens have trigger neurons that get wired into the brain. The other side of blossoming is pruning, meaning that whatever isn’t being wired in gets pruned. Here is an example of pruning: If children miss the right time to wire in the skill of connecting with others and making new friends, because they chose to play video games instead, then they may miss the opportunity to form these circuits in the brain. Unfortunately, it is harder to build them later and requires much more focus in order to do so.
Parents sometimes comment that their adolescents have poor impulse control, which relates to an area of the teen brain still under construction called “myelination.” This process is responsible for the protective insulation that allows the brain cells to communicate electrical signals. Without this insulation the brain cells are not able to communicate properly. The part of the brain that is still being myelinated in teenagers is the part responsible for emotional regulation. Without access to this area of the prefrontal cortex, when teens get upset their brains become more active in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for sending fight and flight alarms to the brainstem.
As I stated above, scientists used to think that adolescents’ brains were the same as adults, but this research makes it clear that is not the case. While a teen’s PFC is being pruned, it is essential that parents mindfully guide them in a way that provides calmness and structure so that their brains develop optimally through this process.
In boys, the rapid development of the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland, which sends an overflow of testosterone. This process triggers a preoccupation with sexual thoughts, fantasy, and curiosity, which can make it harder to focus on school or other responsibilities. For boys, it is normal to have “wet dreams,” which are defined as nighttime ejaculation, which may initially surprise or embarrass them. Masturbation, too, becomes more common. The sex drive in boys and girls is connected to dopamine — the “feel good” hormone.
The hypothalamus also signals changes in the hormone levels that are responsible for the awakening of sexual interest in girls. For both boys and girls, testosterone triggers the sex drive. While boys are more likely to view girls in a sexually objective way, girls are more likely to focus on relational aspects of sexual attraction. Falling in love is not all about sex.
The brain response to someone in love can be compared to someone under the influence of cocaine. Dr. Stanton Peele wrote in his book, Love and Addiction, “From the brain’s point of view, at least, falling in love is as powerful as a cocaine high: dopamine (feeling good), norepinephrine (reacting quickly), and serotonin (mood), are all in play while falling in love.” Many parents believe that sex should be delayed until adulthood or marriage. Whether or not parents like it, many teens have sex and get into trouble because of it. Many parents still find these conversations awkward and so avoid having them with their teens. Luckily, the rates of teen pregnancy have decreased by 30 percent over the past decade. The average age for teens to start having intercourse is 15. More teens have access to condoms and use them then they did in the past. Many teens do not consider oral sex to be risky because it doesn’t lead to pregnancy. Unfortunately many of them still do not consider the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Suggestions for parents
It’s essential that parents deal with their own discomfort when talking about sex with their teens so that teens can hear a different voice than what they hear from their friends or the media. It is also necessary for parents to love and accept their teen regardless of their sexual identity. It is important to have conversations with your teen about birth control, sex, sexuality, and STDs. It’s also important to know who their friends are, who they may feel attracted to, and to discuss values such as respect, honesty, and authenticity in relationships. Whenever they are talking, really listen and ask questions when you don’t understand.
I find that this is important information that brings to light what teens are going through and will help with calmly meeting a teen who is struggling with intense emotions. Interestingly, after talking with teens about these changes in their development, I’ve never had any of them try to use it as an excuse for their behavior. Not that I would be entirely surprised if that happened, but what I’ve noticed is that talking about this with them seems to validate their experiences and they seem to settle a bit afterwards as they are taking it in.
Learning about the teen brain helps parents understand the value of focused, calm parenting and also helps create compassion. Teenagers are not in control of their developing brains!