What were you thinking?: a peek inside the teenage brain

boy-shrugging-cropped-paidIf you’re raising a teenager, no doubt your mantra is “What were you thinking?” Teens aren’t known for making the best decisions. Or planning ahead. Or considering consequences. The list of patience-trying teen behaviors goes on and on … here’s the good news. They’ll get over it. Here’s the startling news. When they say, “But, Mom, it isn’t my fault!” they may be partially right.

It’s their brains.
In terms of human development, the brain undergoes two periods of enormous growth: from birth to about age four, and then again from about ages 10 to 14. Dr. Jay Giedd, of the National Institute of Mental Health, says of the adolescent and teen years, “In many ways, it’s the most tumultuous time of brain development since coming out of the womb.”
Whereas an infant’s and toddler’s brain is literally growing, a teenager’s brain is remodeling itself, mostly by making and pruning connections. Instead of having a screw loose, as the old saying goes about someone who makes lousy decisions, teens-metaphorically speaking-have wires loose.
Up to this point, adolescents and teens have mostly been acting from their emotions (think limbic system) and pleasure-and-reward systems (think amygdala), which explains a lot about their behavior. Now, as they approach and go through puberty, they are preparing to become adults, and their brains know it. It’s time for the brain to rewire itself, adding millions of new connections between those emotional-impulsive behavioral centers and the frontal lobes, especially the prefrontal cortex.
This is the “executive” center of the brain, the area that is active when we rationally assess situations, consider the consequences of our and others’ actions, set priorities-generally all those things we expect our teens to know how to do but that their brains are not yet fully wired to do. The prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to be developed, and the rewiring will go on well into their 20s.
At the same time that all these new connections are forming, your teen’s brain is strengthening already existing connections and pruning less used ones. Whatever your teen is focusing on-sports, study, friendships or, conversely, zoning out in front of the TV or endlessly playing video games-gets reinforced by the brain. Those connective pathways that are not continually activated get pared away.
What’s crucial about this rewiring is that it influences the skills teens take with them into adulthood. To some extent the old adage “use it or lose it” holds true.
To be fair, this spurt of brain remodeling is not an excuse for a teen’s sometimes exasperating behavior. But it does provide parents insight into why teens think something is a great idea when you don’t, why they can’t seem to plan or organize when you think doing so is a no-brainer, why they act without considering consequences that you think are incredibly obvious. Simply put, at this point in their development, teen brains have problems separating what’s important from what’s not so important.
So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage?
Experts suggest strategies that include being clear in your instructions and guiding your teen with advice, but doing so with a soft touch. Your teen needs to “practice” being an adult without being punished for not yet being one. Cultivate the patience to allow them to make mistakes with their growing independence. They are learning to curb their impulses and mediate their emotions. They are learning reasoning, logic and analysis. Whether they show it or not, they will look to the adults in their lives–meaning you–as examples.
This is a trying time for many parents, for while teens might seem to be pushing you away as they “practice” being independent, they also will be secretly watching and learning from you since you are the most important adult in their life.
              
Author’s content used under license, © Claire Communications
♥♥♥LOVE IN ACTION♥♥♥
When living with a teenager is testing your own sanity, remember Erma Bombeck’s quote: Kids need love the most when they’re acting most unlovable. 

a hurt is a hurt is a hurt

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer

Nothing brings us running faster to our child’s side than when they get hurt.  Not just a little scratch on the knee kind of hurt, but a howling writhing pain. Especially if there is blood. There’s something in our primitive brain that kicks in, gets the adrenaline going, and gets us moving toward our child to offer support.

Remember the scene in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer where Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ted Kramer, sprints across town in a panic clutching his injured son? (Of course you don’t, that was before your time…but rent it sometime…it’s worth a watch). If you are a parent, there’s no way you can watch that scene and not have your heart in your throat because this is one of our deepest fears….that something will happen to our child.

But what happens when our child experiences a different kind of hurt?  An emotional hurt?  Where, instead of blood, there are lots of tears, or screaming, or angry outbursts.  Most of us aren’t so quick to move toward our child to soothe these kinds of hurts.  Instead we move in the opposite direction, or send our child away, to “get it under control.”

Why do we move toward physical pain….and move away from emotional pain?  It’s a question worth pondering, don’t you think?

Consider the research of psychologists Geoff MacDonald and Mark Leary who have found that the brain regions involved in experiencing physical pain are the same areas involved in experiencing emotional pain. (In their research the emotional pain is in the form of social rejection.) This means that the same area of your child’s brain that lights up with activity when he takes a spill on his bike also lights up when he gets in a heated fight with his sister.

There’s a theory that as we evolved into more emotional social beings, evolution “borrowed” the physical pain neural circuitry already present to also detect and send emotional distress signals to the brain.  Why create a whole new neural system when one’s already in place, right?

So if the same brain region fires whether the pain is physical or emotional, perhaps we should reconsider our attitude toward the emotional kind of pain. Our child’s brain doesn’t seem to know the difference between the two. To the brain, a hurt is a hurt is a hurt.  Maybe it’s too much to send our child into isolation to deal with intense emotions…just like we wouldn’t send him to his room to deal with a broken arm. Maybe we should attempt to soothe emotional pain with the same gusto we attempt to soothe physical pain.

♥♥♥LOVE IN ACTION♥♥♥

The next time your child has a meltdown, try this. Remain calm yourself. Then move toward your child and be the container for those big emotions. Soothe the emotional hurt with empathy and understanding

The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

brainRecently, I attended a fascinating 3-day training on the latest findings in neuroscience.  This field has exploded in the last 10-12 years and one of the leading researchers, Dr. Dan Siegel, applies these new findings to the realm of parenting. He and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, have co-authored two books (The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline) which I highly recommend if you are interested in learning how to work with your child’s brain development instead of against it.

Here’s an article from Dr. Bryson on how to engage your child’s “upstairs” brain instead of devolving into the chaos of the “downstairs” brain.