Do you sometimes struggle to understand what is going on in the world of teenagers? Do you see a beautiful young person one day and then a monster the next? Do you tear your hair out at seemingly inexplicable mood swings? Do you throw up your hands in despair? Do you feel you are losing your relationship with a teenager?
Welcome to the normal world of the teenager!
While I was researching adolescent behaviour and the latest adolescent brain research, I jotted down some key aspects of adolescent brain development. This knowledge significantly impacted HOW, when and why I communicated with teenagers from all walks of life as a parent, teacher, coach and mentor.
We do well to pause from time to time and remember our own teenage experiences, how we felt at certain times, how we responded to situations, different people and so on as we journeyed through confusing times in search of meaning and purpose in our lives.
A basic understanding of the teenage brain
Due to the plasticity of the brain, it can be changed by experiences, a point that should always give HOPE to anyone working with young people.
The frontal lobes make up 40% of the brain’s total volume. They are the seat of our ability to generate insight, judgment, abstraction, impulse control and planning. They are the source of self-awareness and our ability to assess dangers and risks, so we use this area of the brain to choose a course of action wisely.
The frontal lobes are said to house the ‘Executive’ function of the human brain which only ceases developing in the mid-20s. So adolescents need repetition and to continually learn what responsible choices feel like, look like and sound like. When we are not stressed by negative emotions, we can control what information makes it to our brain. In addition, certain activities like interacting with friends, laughing, participating in physical activities and acting kindly increase the DOPAMINE (a chemical neurotransmitter) levels in the adolescent brain, which in turn, could boost the student’s learning and ability to process new information. Our brains release EXTRA Dopamine when an experience is enjoyable.
24 Key points from adolescent brain research to help you understand the teenage brain.
What follows are some of the key points I jotted down. Hopefully, they will serve as an encouragement to anyone working with teenagers.
- Scientists are showing that by practicing brain-based skills we can actually change the way our brains look and operate:
- Training and practice will improve skills and change our brains and build its capacity to use these skills.
- Having a growth mindset that encourages adolescents to keep working at these skills will see the development of self-confidence – it’s a self-empowering journey.
- What is really important is to develop a positive mindset which is advantageous for the development of the brain.
- What we must do is provide structures with empowerment ie, support adolescents while allowing them to find their voices. (Dr Daniel J. Siegel)
- People who practice mindfulness on a regular basis have strong coping skills and are resilient in the face of adversity. “Cultivating these skills can help you to rewire your brain.” (Professor John Arden)
- The adolescent brain is only 80% of the way to maturity. The 20% gap is where the wiring is thinnest and this helps explain teenage mood swings, irritability, impulsivity, explosiveness, an inability to focus, to follow through and to connect with adults and the temptation to use drugs, alcohol and engage in other risky behaviour. (Dr Francis Jensen)
- As the Prefrontal Cortex is still developing, adolescents struggle to see ahead and understand possible consequences of their choices, so they are not really equipped to weigh up the relative harm of risky behaviour. This is why access to positive information and experiences is so important (as are interactions with parents/teachers/coaches/mentors and other significant adults in their lives).
- Even though adolescent brains are learning at peak efficiency, much else is inefficient, including attention, self-discipline, task completion and emotions.
- “Adolescence is something they have to do on their own. We can guide them, but we can’t do it for them. This is their time for growth and learning, but there is something powerful we can do to help them along the way. We can give them the information they need to light their way forward.” (Karen Young, Psychologist)
- Adolescents are not irrational. Their reasoning abilities are likely to be developed by the age of 15, so, if they pause and think, they will be able to logically assess if an activity is dangerous or not.
- Studies of the brain clearly show that reflection inward or in communication with others, stimulates the activation and development of the Prefrontal Cortex towards its integrative growth.
- Supportive relationships lead to stronger feelings of happiness and healthier lives, while enriched environments stimulate neuroplasticity.
- As adolescents mature, if they know how to keep developing the POSITIVE skills and activities that release DOPAMINE, they are less likely to participate in high risk behaviors like drugs, alcohol, reckless driving, over-eating, inappropriate sexual or antisocial behaviour.
- Dopamine, when released in a positive sense, will reinforce goal-directed activity.
- Positive humour boosts the vitality of our thoughts and our emotions and enhances our ability to deal with stress, anxiety and depression.
- As the Frontal Lobes mature (Prefrontal Cortex), adolescents are increasingly capable of moral reasoning and idealism. “They see the world not only as it is, but also how it could be.” (Dr Sheryl Feinstein).
- When adolescents experience a spirit of belonging, they feel happy and this adds to their social and emotional wellbeing.
- Physical activity can build brain cells, enhance the development of cognitive processing skills and build strong memory pathways.
- Thinking can be taught.
- The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself via neuroplasticity is profound.
- Where a young person grows up in a highly stressful and non-nurturing environment, his/her brain develops a greater sensitivity to stress and less propensity for healthy, nurturing behaviour.
- Students who believe they have the chance to be successful are intrinsically motivated to learn. The brain is naturally social and collaborative.
- Adolescents who are high in self-control do better in school, have higher self-esteem, better, healthier relationships and fewer problems with anger.
Sometimes we just need to grit our teeth and speak to the potential we know is within a young person even when he or she seems unable to see it, possibly even believe it. Persevere! Never quit on any teenager. Every person is beautiful on the inside and the outside and sometimes it takes a while for them to understand and see this, hence the importance of having a non-judgmental adult Cheerleader journeying with our young people.
About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in New Zealand and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook (where you are able to join a closed mentoring group) or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website Robin’s free Mentoring Matters daily podcasts (each podcast between 1.5 and 3 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available here.