It wasn't me, it was my brain
Updated: Jan 4, 2019
Adolescent brains undergo the biggest changes since the age of 2. They become more specialised, efficient and more capable of complex tasks but this all takes time and a lot of effort.
Understanding these changes gives us a deeper understanding of why teenagers behave the way they do – not an excuse but perhaps an explanation!
Neurons are the key to this change. These brain cells use the bushy dendrites to receive messages from other neurons and then act, or not, on these messages. These tiny STOP or GO chemical messages are sent down the axon to other cells. Up to the age of 10 the dendrites grow wildly – the more they are used the more they grow. Then a pruning process starts and the brain strengthens in the areas that are used the most, building a special coating called myelin, which makes it work more efficiently. Practiced skills become hard wired into the brain and these areas of activity are strongest.
People aren’t good at things by accident – their brain has been trained to be good. Have a go at things, be willing make mistakes and keep doing it. A good brain workout in anything will make you better at it, including maths!
The brain changes and grows at different rates and isn’t fully formed until the early 20s.There are distinct parts of the brain, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex being two, that have a serious impact on how adolescents feel and react. The amygdala is the seat of emotions and as this develops more quickly than the logical and regulatory part of the brain, it makes sense that emotional responses are the norm. The pre-frontal cortex, where we get the ability to make judgements, find empathy, implement structure and make rational decisions, doesn’t fully develop until the range of 18-25. This helps to understand why many of these skills are still developing in teenagers and what parents can do to help bridge the gap.
So when a young person is firing from this emotional centre there is no point appealing to their logical and compassionate side..
Its best to address the issue and give choices when they are calm. Its useful for anyone to have an activity, place, or task that keeps them steady when life is emotionally overwhelming and that they can go to in order to calm down. It could be playing music, kicking a ball, walking the dog, writing a diary or playing a game.
The other issue with this emotional response system in the brain is that passions run wild! Risk taking is, well, more risky! Not only is there no ‘voice of reason’ available to weigh up the consequences but the brain chemical, dopamine, that is released is stimulating and addictive. For this reason too, alcohol and drugs, which create a similar sensation, are very attractive, and very addictive. The mesolimbic dopamine system in the brain is activated and seeks the same sensation over and over again so by using alcohol and drugs, the brain is being trained very effectively to become addicted.
Try and help teenagers find activities that give them the dopamine in a safe way, such as high energy sports or activities. Teenage brains also have an immature area that directs motivation to seek reward - try very low effort or high excitement when presenting suggestions - immediate payoffs might work too.
When it comes to sleep, it may be time to cut some slack. Adolescents genuinely don’t have the same sleep pattern as younger children! The pineal gland at the base of the brain produces melatonin which is the chemical that signals the body to begin shutting down to sleep. This chemical takes longer to rise in teenagers so their natural rhythm changes and they want to go to sleep later and get up later. BUT…school is still at 8.45! This often means they have a sleep deficit by the weekends and have to catch up. Sleep however is really important so all the usual things like no screen time, relaxing activities and so on before bed are highly recommended. Sleep is also vital for processing schoolwork and other activities – the brain revisits and consolidates what it has done in the day during deep sleep, and as with all activities, this strengthens are ability to do it.
Think of sleep as fertilizer for your brain. It is possible to become better at activities in your sleep if you give your brain a chance to practice them. Agree a regular bedtime for your children that fits with their changing rhythm, however much it isn't welcome - research shows teenagers function better the next day with this structure.
Despite these biological changes there are still ways to help teenagers. If you are an adult or a teenager reading this, patience, understanding and love go a long way. Try to do as many varied activities and learning as you can. Making mistakes and not being a pro doesn’t last forever - keep practising and it will pay off. Seek out or provide the structure, planning and reason. Until these skills are fully developed, adults need to step in to help in a way that is acceptable. This might be with planning homework and projects or looking logically and objectively at a problem. Try to sleep well – have a regular bedtime routine so you can train your brain when to get sleepy. To help with sleep try the advice at Moodjuice. Above all, things don't always go the way we would like and the best outcome from this is to say 'sorry'. There is always tomorrow to try again.
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Deak, J and T (2013). ‘The Owner’s Manual for Driving your Adolescent Brain.’ Little Pickle Press, California
Syed, M (2018. 'You are Awesome.' Hachette, UK
Wallis, C ( ). ‘What Makes Teens Tick?’ Time Magazine, Edition /
Forster, K ( ). ‘Secrets of the Teenage Brain’ The Guardian, date.