For parents of teenagers, the start of a new academic year can often usher in old problems:
Staying up until all hours of the night — and then not getting up in time for school.
Yes, this kind of behavior is disheartening, but here’s the good news. This is just a developmental phase, and knowing the science behind the teen brain can help you help your child.
“When you use science and fact to explain why they’re behaving the way they are,” says Frances E. Jensen, a neuroscientist and author of “The Teenage Brain,” “it’s a way for both of you to feel validated and vindicated.”
For years, scientists — and parents — believed the adolescent brain was like an adult brain. In fact, the accepted theory was that brain growth was relatively complete by kindergarten. But science has proven differently. Teens behave the way they do because the part of the brain that controls judgment and emotion — the prefrontal cortex — hasn’t developed fully and won’t until they reach their 20s.
So is that behavior giving you gray hair? There’s a good explanation for it.
Jensen, who is chairwoman of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, describes it in these terms. “Think of the teen brain as a Ferrari with weak brakes. It’s revved up, but doesn’t always know how to stop.”
In other words, the teen brain is a work in progress, yet sometimes parents expect teens’ actions to match their developed bodies. They won’t, always. Here’s why:
The prefrontal cortex, the area in the brain behind the forehead, controls our executive function: the ability to plan, organize and use memory. It regulates moods. But it hasn’t fully matured in a teen, and his behavior will reflect that.
What’s more, as a teen’s brain gets “rewired,” their decision-making is rerouted to the amygdala, a part of the brain that reacts immediately to any perceived threat. The amygdala is involved in the processing of emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure.
“There’s a mismatch between what we expect of them and what they can truly do,” explains Margaret Sibley, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Supporting Teens’ Academic Needs Daily (STAND) program at Florida International University’s Center for Children and Families.
“And the connection between the two varies from child to child. Some kids struggle more than others and for others, these executive function skills click earlier.”
This, however, doesn’t mean parents should throw up their hand and sit out those teenage years. In fact, scientists say adolescence provides a window of opportunity to help guide a teen through tumultuous times. Many situations provide teachable moments.
“Our job is to get them to the point that they’re making good decisions on their own,” says Alan Delamater, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Miami’s Mailman Center for Child Development. “The idea is to constantly work with our children so they can perform to the best they can be.”