Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Teenage Brain Part II - getting inside the head of your teenager

The Teenage Brain Part II

I am not going to pretend I am an expert on teenagers, except I have friends with teenagers, and I have one of my own a boy aged 14 years old and I can tell you he is driving me round the bend! In my last blog I explored how the teenage brain is different to when they were a child and that the brain is in such a transitional period that that it is unfair to expect teenagers to act like adults and that it can take up to 25 years for it to be so – maybe that’s the definitive age you can say that your child is now a grown-up and that you really do have an alien living in your home!

Teenagers only have to focus on themselves; it’s not until they get older that they realize that other people exist.”

But what consequences do these changes to the teenage brain have.  Well it can explain why teenagers are often seen to be self-centered, moody, rude, and selfish but really it’s an actual developmental stage they're at. They aren't yet at that place where they're thinking about or capable of thinking about the effects of their behaviour on other people as this requires insight. Their brain chemistry is tuned to be responsive to everything in their environment and it’s the part of the brain that says: "is this a good idea?" "What is the consequence of this action?"  Or in the case of my son is “should I do my homework now or play x-box!” To be fair, my son has never been good at insight on how his behaviour affects others, but there again he didn't have the greatest role model in his dad on this score  and has now lacked a fatherly interest at all for three years now.  Friends, family, teachers or colleagues either love my son and admire him or dislike him – a bit like marmite.  It’s not that he misbehaves badly it’s just that he doesn't always know how important personal space is, or the boundaries when to stop winding up a person and going too far. I know that he doesn't realise quite how selfish he can be but he does still have the capacity to surprise me now and again with how caring he can be.

“Love is when your teen finds £20 in his pocket which you had forgotten you gave to buy jeans and he offers to buy you a pizza!” 

I often say to my son that he should be able to organize himself better, but if the frontal lobe is still developing in things like planning, strategizing and organizing, initiating attention and stopping and starting and shifting attention it’s probably unfair to expect him to have an adult level of organizational skills or decision making.  Problem is with me being hit by the menopause and knowing that the chemo has affected my brain as well, I am not the greatest role model in this area at the moment and there are strategies that we could both work out together to make our home life less confusing at times!

 "I have nothing to wear"! He wails – his clothes are all on his bedroom floor or shoved down the side of the bed.  If it isn't in the wash basket there are consequences!” #teenlogic "

Though it is impossible to get inside the head of an adolescent, scientists have probed the teens’ tangle of neurons and here are five things they've particularly learned about the mysterious teen brain.

1.     New thinking skills
Due to the increase in brain matter, the teen brain becomes more interconnected and if given time and access to information, gains processing power around the decision-making skills of an adult.  However, in the heat of the moment, their decision-making can be influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the emotional seat of the brain than the more rational prefrontal cortex. Teens know the difference between right and wrong, but they do things when they clearly should know better ("Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress" - Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

“If you continuously knock on the door when I am showering asking how much longer I am gonna take, I will obviously take longer.” #teenlogic

2.     Intense emotions
Puberty is the beginning of major changes in the limbic system the part of the brain that not only helps regulate heart rate and blood sugar levels, but also critical to the formation of memories and emotions. Its development, along with hormonal changes, can give rise to intense experiences of rage, fear, aggression (including toward oneself), excitement and sexual attraction. Over the course of adolescence the limbic system comes under greater control of the prefrontal cortex , the area just behind the forehead, associated with planning, impulse control and higher order thought and as your teen gets older additional areas of the brain start to help process emotion, and they have an easier time interpreting others.  Until that time, teenagers often misread people, and situations and become sensitive to criticism   from parents, teachers, friends and themselves leading to self-esteem issues. You can be as careful as you can with what you say but can still have tears or anger at times because they have misunderstood what you have said. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

“As a teenager I was so insecure. I was the type of guy that never fitted in because he never dared to choose. I was convinced I had absolutely no talent at all - for nothing. And that thought took away all my ambition too.” - Johnny Depp

3.     Peer pleasure
As teenagers become better at abstract thinking their social anxiety increases - abstract reasoning makes it possible to consider yourself from the eyes of another. Teens may use this new skill to worry about what others are thinking of them. In particular, peer approval has been shown to be highly rewarding to the teen brain, which may be why teens are more likely to take risks when other teens are around. Friends also provide teens with opportunities to learn skills such as negotiating, compromise and group planning. They are practicing adult social skills in a safe setting and even if they are really not good at it at first and all they do is sit around with their friends, teens are hard at work acquiring important life skills and trying to look cool. 

“Teenagers these days are popular based on the name brand clothing they wear and the size of their wallets...but not by their character or personality.”

My son is impossible to shop for clothes for and I now give him money to go out with his friends to buy what he needs.  The last time I went clothes shopping with him it was to buy a pair of jeans/trousers and a top to go with it.  It took an age for him to make a decision between what he wanted and could afford to have – it had to be in the right colour, the right brand and with little compromise but had to because of the budget.  My son did make me laugh though while shopping for a school bag, he took a photo of the one he wanted and sent it to his friend to approve of first!

“Nothings ever a teenagers life...”

4.     Measuring risk
In calm situations, teenagers can rationalize almost as well as adults. But stress can hijack cognition and decision-making. The frontal lobes help put the brakes on a desire for thrills and taking risks, and teens need higher doses of risk to feel the same amount of rush an adults does. The changes in frontal lobe means that they access this part of their brain more slowly with the brakes coming online somewhat later – this can make your teen vulnerable to addiction such as alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and much worse to engaging in risky behaviours such as trying drugs, getting into fights or jumping into unsafe water. These substances tap into a much more robust habit-forming ability than that compared to adults. One explanation why teenagers might be wired to be reckless is that being a risk-taker also encourages them to explore the world and to try out a range of new things.

I started smoking when I was 14 years old and this was down to peer pressure and the desire to fit in.  I went to three different secondary schools and smoking was a way for me to say that I was cool – accept me, be my friend.  Smoking has been a lifetime addiction for me and I am going to try and give up this month (third time of trying).  Luckily these days smoking is not considered so cool and my son is currently very anti-smoking – although so were my niece and nephew at his age and they both smoke now!  Right now it’s his desire for alcohol that is on my mind – not that he is drinking at all – but is talking about it and wants to try things that I may drink myself.  

“According to Teenage Research Unlimited, 51% of 13-15 year olds say they will be faced with making a decision regarding alcohol in the next three months.”

It is a fact that those within their teenage die in accidents of almost every sort (other than work accidents) at higher rates than adults and small children. Most long-term drug or alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, and even people who later drink responsibly often drink too much as teens. However, it is thought that teenagers generally actually overestimate risk but take more risks not because they don't understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.

“Thrill-seeking, the desire to impress one’s friends, feelings of invincibility and the search for new experiences are all motivating forces that drive teens to act without concern for consequences or without even being able to fully evaluate the potential risks.”

5.    'I am the centre of the universe'
The hormone changes at puberty also spur the production of more receptors for oxytocin.  While oxytocin is often described as the "bonding hormone," increased sensitivity to its effects in the limbic system is also linked to feelings of self-consciousness, making an adolescent truly feel like everyone is watching him or her.  These feelings peak around 15 years old. "It is the first time they are seeing themselves in the world, and are asking themselves for, perhaps the first time: What kind of person do I want to be and what type of place do I want the world to be? McNeely and Blanchard

“Some are young people who don't know who they are, what they can be or even want to be. They are afraid, but they don't know of what. They are angry, but they don't know at whom. They are rejected and they don't know why. All they want is to be somebody. ”

The upshot is if you don't have a fully functioning prefrontal cortex you tend to be impulsive, insensitive to other people's feelings and take unnecessary risks – sounds like your teenager? 

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Parenting teenagers can be a really tricky job and getting the balance right can be difficult especially with one who is not listening and making home life difficult. Part III of my blog looks at some parenting tips in raising your teenager.

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