I’m no expert in the field of neurology but I wrote my Master’s Thesis on Adolescence and spent many years of my career working with them and their parents as a therapist. There is an opportunity during this time to make a huge difference in the life of a young person because their brains are in a unique state of imbalance. I bet you knew about the imbalance part.
I found an article by Konrad, Firk and Uhlhaas published in 2013 that reviews current research on the neurology of the adolescent brain. I’m going to try to paraphrase it here hoping that once you have an idea of what your teen is going through you will better understand what they need from you so they might come out the other side ready for adulthood. “The major developmental tasks of adolescence include the establishment and nurturing of intimate relationships and the development of identity, future perspectives, independence, self-confidence, self-control, and social skills.”
The brain of the adolescent goes through a phase of plasticity and pruning of synapses (brain pathways) as did the brain of the toddler years earlier. Environmental factors can have major, lasting effects on this changing brain circuitry. Because adolescents are so readily influenced by emotions, they stand to profit from learning in a positive emotional context that is intentionally designed to train emotional regulation. Thankfully, emotional regulation and the brain structures responsible for it are influenced by parent-child interactions. The same plasticity that creates the unique adolescent experience gives parents and teachers the ability to wield strong influence on the adolescent brain. Repetitive exposure to emotionally regulated people and regulating experiences (rhythmic and repetitive sensory experiences like breathing, dancing and walking) and extensive practice in handling difficult social interactions prepare the teen brain to withstand peer pressure when it inevitably arrives. This assumes, of course, that the parent or teacher arrives with their own regulation intact and strong enough to resist emotional contamination by the erratic teen. Don’t lose your cool when they lose theirs.
It’s a “use or lose it” developmental phase and both risks and benefits are high. The good news for kids from childhood trauma: “Many synapses are formed in childhood that are later removed in adolescence. This occurs in an experience-dependent way, i.e., the synapses that survive are the ones that are more often ‘in use.’” The teen’s long term functioning is more influenced by the wide network of adults who take an interest in them than those earlier, stressful events.
During this period of brain development, when the rewards of social connection (in the limbic system) out-pace the ability to think about consequences (in the prefrontal cortex), adolescents seek novelty and strong emotions, sometimes putting their health and future plans at serious risk. The reorganization of brain circuitry responsible for planning and cause and effect is temporarily made a slave of the part of the brain responsible for emotions and social connections. Evidence of this is seen in the impulsive decision making and emotional dysregulation typical of teens. In situations that are particularly emotionally laden (e.g., in the presence of other adolescents or when there is the prospect of an immediate reward), the probability rises that rewards and social approval (coolness) will affect behavior more strongly than rational decision-making processes. The social approval of peers—is more desired than any risk is to be avoided or even considered.
Interestingly, all this risk taking does make a bit of sense in light of their impending entry into adulthood and the extrication from their primary family necessary for that to happen. Now throw puberty into the mix and the gush of estrogens may make girls more susceptible to stress, while the androgen rush makes boys more resilient to it. It occurs to me that the image of the beauty tied to the railroad tracks while her rescuer rides in on his white horse seems to sum up the previous sentence perfectly. Though somewhat sexist, this image is apparently consistent with this period of neurological re-development that may last through the twenties.
Having any history of persistent trauma in childhood further complicates this picture but not a lot. I invite you to take our course in the Neurosequential Model of Caregiving to get a deeper understanding of that but in essence: Stay regulated so you can help your child become more regulated so trust between you can grow enough to open the door to important conversations about becoming a person of good character. Just like a traumatized child, a teen’s brain is more vulnerable to their emotional state and less influenced by rational thinking about longer term consequences. Both can benefit from practicing tricky social situations in the context of a positive, supportive relationship.
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Our Friday night Happy Hour and Tuesday afternoon Coffee Chat continue. Some find us and a single other participant; others find a conversation among 4 to 6 people. The topics range from the silly to what hobbies have us in their grip to what life has thrown in our path. If you ever find yourself wanting a bit of grown-up conversation, consider joining us (check your email for the unchanging link).
- Registration is also open for new, regional Circles of Supportive Families. Reach out to find another parent who understands. Registration Links are on the calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar
- Though pressures are easing, this pandemic continues for those of us who understand what is at stake. We are all weary of it. Reach out if you need an ear: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://www.pcaaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/B21-Insightful-Caregiving-Intimacy.pdf and at https://www.neurosequential.com/covid-19-resources
Thanks for listening. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.