The brain is an amazing, tangled mess with the consistency of Jell-O. Unfortunately, that tangled mess can drive the parent of an adolescent crazy.
Here are some quotes from parents I’ve taught:
- “Why can’t they just do their homework without me constantly asking?”
- “Why do I have to repeat myself a hundred times?”
- “I really think my child is digressing; they can’t follow a simple instruction”
- “They are so emotional and out-of-control”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because when your child reaches adolescence something besides hormones is driving the car. That something is inside their brains, and it can exacerbate many of the behaviors you have witnessed in your child.
In medical terms, the tween/teen brain is experiencing a great deal of growth and “shedding.” Shedding is the term the professionals use to describe the transformation of the adolescent brain.
An analogy for this process is that the brain goes through something similar to an exfoliating process (shedding old layers so new, fresh ones can grow). The good news is that during this stage the tween/teen brain has the capacity to grow, mature and take in information. On the other hand, due to the tremendous changes the tween/teen is experiencing, parents sometimes feel like they’ve re-entered the terrible two’s again.
Dr. Frances E. Jensen is the author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults and Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. She says scientists used to think human brain development was pretty complete by age 10. Or as she puts it, that “a teenage brain is just an adult brain with fewer miles on it.” But it’s not. To begin with, she says, a crucial part of the brain — the frontal lobe — is not fully connected during adolescence. That’s “the part of the brain that says: ‘Is this a good idea?’” During the tween/teen years, major growth is happening in the pre-frontal lobe, which is the CEO of the brain.
Dr. Jensen says, “It’s important to remember that even though their brains are learning at peak efficiency, much else is inefficient, including attention, self-discipline, task completion, and emotions. So the mantra ‘one thing at a time’ is useful to repeat to yourself. Try not to overwhelm your teenagers with instructions.”
So what does this all mean? As parents we often blame hormones or the teen experience. Hormones do contribute, as do environment, peer pressure, social media, stress and parental issues. Physiologically, though, brain growth and development is also happening and will continue until around age 25 (when one can rent a car).
Understanding what part the brain plays during adolescence helps parents help their children during this transitional time. And parents who want a little help with that understanding can sign up for our Inside the Tween/Teen Brain presentation, which covers it all.