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How Knowledge Can Help copyright September 2000, Diana Joy
There are many ways to look at human development. We develop physically, with changes in both the structure and chemistry in our bodies and brains. We develop cognitively as influenced by our biology, environment and personal choices. We develop socially, influenced by all these factors and more. As parents, we have watched our child’s development closely, sometimes with anxiety and often with pride. Somehow, perhaps because there hasn’t been as much information about the developmental tasks and processes of the teen years, we become more frustrated and confused about what is happening to our children in their teens. Teenagers undergo enormous and complex developmental processes. The milestones they reach are less concrete and visible than their first smile or first step but no less monumental. Until this decade, there was a general supposition that teenagers could think like adults, if only they would! What we now know is that the brain itself is still rapidly developing until our early twenties. There is much more change happening in the teenage brain than we ever imagined. In fact, it makes those first steps seem like, well, child’s play. Let’s take a look at some of the specific developmental processes going on and try to use this knowledge constructively for our benefit. Knowledge, if used with this intent, is power. Knowledge of what an infant is doing developmentally helps us to parent effectively by creating appropriate expectations and reactions and identifying helpful activities we can provide. In the same way, knowledge of teenage development can help both teens and parents to engage in more effective behaviors for successful development. I say teens and parents, because teenagers, without a doubt, are as significant as their parents in determining the outcome of the developmental tasks of their teens. First of all, different regions of the brain develop on different timetables. One of the last areas to mature is the one in charge of making sound judgments and calming disturbed emotions, the prefrontal cortex, or pc for short. While the pc is trying to get out the starting gate, the emotional centers of the teenage brain are being revved up by sex hormones. Lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are making teens more likely to act impulsively and less likely to learn from experience. The pc coordinates signals from different regions of the brain. It handles ambiguous or confusing information and making decisions. It moderates emotions generated in the limbic system. The pc has been called the seat of civilization. It is often referred to as the Executive, coordinating myriad inputs, weighing possibilities and issuing directives. The limbic system is associated with raw emotions, fear, elation, and anger. According to neuroscience today, the prefrontal cortex in the teenage brain is practically asleep at the wheel, while the limbic system is in a stage of development equal to hyper drive.
In recent experiments brain activity was monitored while adults and teenagers looked at photos of people’s faces showing fear. In the adult brain, the limbic and prefrontal cortex lit up. In the teenage brain, the limbic system lit up while the prefrontal cortex remained almost dark. This corresponds with results showing teenagers are not adept readers of social signals, which contributes to the increase in miscommunication so commonly experienced by parents and teens. What are some of the behaviors corresponding to these neuroscience facts? • Increased emotional response, moodiness and impulsiveness. • Difficulty organizing and prioritizing tasks. • Difficulty with short-term memory. (A list of three chores evaporates after one is done, sometimes before!) • Difficulty using information from multiple sources to put together good decisions. • Difficulty foreseeing outcomes and consequences. These physiological and psychological realities coexist with the already difficult tasks of adolescence: • Striving for independence and emancipation. • Trying to develop their identity. • Coping with academic demands. • Finding their social and career niche in the world. • Making behavioral choices among a variety of healthy and unhealthy behaviors. These are clearly crucial tasks to master. How can we use this knowledge of neuroscience and the developing brain to help? Knowing this teens can choose to: -focus on learning to moderate emotional reactions and be in control of behaviors rather than assuming that it is always best to ‘go with the feeling” at this time in your life. -not confuse feeling with fact, recognizing that emotions are being affected by many factors right now that are internal, not external. -be patient with yourself, be able to go back to others when emotional responses have gone into hyper drive, apologize and repair damage. -tolerate the discomfort of strong emotions or emotional pain rather than try to avoid it by drugs, alcohol or zoning on videos or fantasy. You are laying down emotional intelligence and strength to last you a lifetime when you cope rather than cop out. Knowing this adults can choose to: -make fewer assumptions about what your teenager really understands or notices regarding emotional responses and cues. Work on recognizing and stating your own emotions clearly.
Worry or hurt is often misperceived as anger, setting up avoidance and defensiveness in teens. The complexities and subtleties of emotional reactions in others are often missed.
personalize the intensity or inappropriateness of teenager’s emotional responses. When you don’t take it so personally, you are able to stay more effective in offering emotional and behavioral learning experiences to your teen. You also avoid some unnecessary emotional pain for yourself. The teenage brain does not even look like an adult brain. Researchers have found there is an unexpected increase in neurons and synapses at the onset of adolescence, followed by a substantial loss in the prefrontal cortex area from the mid-teens to the twenties in a process called pruning. Pruning assures that the brain nourishes only those neurons and synapses that are useful (read being used!). Until this pruning is finished, there is an excess of synapses that effects brain function. It is more difficult to track multiple thoughts; instant access is not available to critical memories and emotions that factor into making the best decisions. Judgment is a learned process that improves with experience and can be modified by information, but it also requires that the hardware be in place! The unfinished prefrontal cortex has difficulty organizing multiple tasks and setting priorities. Activities affected by the prefrontal cortex include inhibiting one’s impulses, regulating emotion and planning and organizing behavior. In addition, the chemical neurotransmitter serotonin appears to decline temporarily in most adolescents, also making them more vulnerable to depression. Knowing this adults can choose to: -anticipate the changes in behavior that come with adolescence for most people. -not personalize these changes or attribute them exclusively to a “bad attitude” or purposeful misbehavior. -recognize that these difficulties are often disturbing, frustrating and even frightening for teens too. Denial and defensiveness are typical of human reactions to such feelings. -focus on providing changing structure and learning opportunities that match your teen’s developmental level and decrease chances of failure. These can include regularly reviewed family contracts, doing calendars, lists, and journals. Clear consequences tied logically to specific responsibilities and privileges, followed through on consistently are helpful, especially if teens are included meaningfully in setting them up. -accept that more of your time is necessary to effectively parent a teenager. Most of us don’t anticipate this and had been eagerly looking forward to more freedom for ourselves too! -provide all the opportunities you can for you teenager to participate in a variety of new, challenging and stimulating experiences.
-learn the symptoms of depression and substance abuse and monitor for warning signs that your child may need help. Teens can choose to: -accept that you have work to do on skill building in the area of impulse control, problem solving and judgment, and do it. -make a hard and fast rule for yourself that you will stop and take time to review factors and possible consequences of decisions before acting on a feeling or desire. Fifteen minutes is a reasonable time to allow yourself (and be allowed by others) to make decisions. There is very little in life that actually can’t wait to give yourself time to think. -recognize that accepting information and even advice is different from accepting control by others. It is the course of the wise of all ages. -accept some structure graciously from others in your life (we all do) and remember that the fastest, most effective path to freedom for adolescents is demonstrating trustworthiness, responsibility and increasing skills in judgment. -ask for more structure if you need it. You know what you need, even if you don’t like it, be big enough to admit it to yourself and others. -learn the symptoms of depression and substance abuse and watch for signs you or a friend may need help to cope with them. -feel empowered knowing how much you have to say about the way your brain
develops at this time in your life. You have more to do with your own development now than ever before in your life.
Risk taking is a normal part of adolescence (though not all risk taking is safe). New experiences, especially those with a hint of danger, affect the brain's reward system, a set of neurons that link emotional centers in the brain and produce intense pleasure. This is the same set of neurons affected by certain drugs such as cocaine. One effect is the release of dopamine, which is responsible for arousal and motivation. Researchers are not yet sure why such activities have the
impact they do on teenagers dopamine systems but the result is that teenagers are naturally more interested in novelty than most adults. Risk taking behavior is also influenced by genetics. Lynn Ponton, child psychiatrist and author of The Romance of Risk , suggests about 60% of a teenager’s tendency to act impulsively and misjudge potential danger is a trait shared with other family members and the result of differences in brain chemistry. Added to the stew of neurotransmitters are sex hormones. Sex hormones not only turn on interest in sex but also change the brain’s architecture. For both males and females testosterone swells the amygdale, an almond shaped part of the limbic system that generates feelings of fear and anger. This change in the amygdale is greater in males and probably contributes to increases in aggressiveness and irritability in both genders during adolescence. One of the last processes to be completed by adulthood is the coating of nerves in myelin. Myelin is a white matter composed of fatty cells that acts much like insulation on an electrical cord. It allows electrical impulses to travel faster and more efficiently. Nerves connecting the different processing centers of the brain don’t finish myelinating until our early 20’s. Nerves do myelinate earlier in girls than in boys. Myelin levels in males may not equal those in females until age 30. Although we have actually only begun to explore the processes occurring in the developing adolescent brain the information we have gained can point us in some helpful directions. During adolescence higher mental skills begin to become automatic. Doing a lot of things as a teenager hard wires the brain for performance for a lifetime. Learning to marshal thoughts, moderate impulses and understand abstract concepts lays actual neural foundations for life. Educating teens about their own development can help them understand the risk of drug and alcohol abuse during adolescence. With all the chemical change going on during these years, drug and alcohol use can permanently alter the balance of their brain chemistry. Parents can be comforted by knowing that searching for new experiences is a normal part of healthy development. Helping teenagers find healthy sources of stimulation and safer risks can be helpful. There are a number of websites for teens and parents: Http://parenting teens.about.com www.dana.org/brainweb has research findings in neuropsychology. www.aacap.org is the site for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
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