For the Whole of Their Life.

Teen Brains Under Construction

By Ellie Rolfe

When people ask what I do and I reply with “I teach Middle School”, I am often met with groans from people or congratulations, as it is something they tell me they would never do. If you were to ask me why Middle School, I would tell you that I think it is the most exciting age to teach! So many things are happening to students during this age, they are going through the stage of emerging from the safe cocoon of childhood, into the really awkward, somewhat uncomfortable and confusing stage of adolescence. Every day in Middle School is always lots of fun. There is always something happening and no two days are ever the same.

Have you ever asked your teenager the reasons why they have done something and you are met with the reply “I don’t know?” Chances are, they do not actually know the reasons for why they have just said what they said, why they had that emotional outburst or why they have just participated in that risk-taking behaviour. This is due to the fact that between the ages of around 10-25 our brains are undergoing a major reconstruction. During this time, the brain begins a “pruning” process, whereby “thousands of neural connections are engaged, and just as many, if not more, disconnect”(Pinto, 2012). This means that our brains begin to “prune” all the synapses (fancy word for connections between neurons) that our brain doesn’t really need anymore. However, the pre-frontal cortex, which is the decision-making part of the brain that uses reason, problem solving and understanding that there are consequences for actions, is the part that is remodelled last. Because of this, pre-adolescents and adolescents tend to rely on their amygdala to make decisions and solve problems. However, the amygdala, is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, aggression, impulses and instinctive behaviour (think flight or fight response). You may remember the scene from the film Inside Out where the main character Riley’s “emotions” are fighting one another inside her mind, or even the scene where her parents ask her about her day at school. At the end of the scene Riley storms off, controlled by her “anger”, rather than her other emotions. I love this film, as it is a fairly accurate depiction of everyday life in an adolescent, where their actions are guided by their “feelings” rather than reason.

When your child is going through this stage, it’s important to remember that their brains are not fully developed yet. We have the opportunity to guide them through this stage of life and help them to navigate the “craziness”. Some helpful tips to do this are:

  • Encouraging positive behaviour
  • Promoting good thinking skills
  • Helping your child get lots of sleep.

During this stage of life, your child may make impulsive decisions, express stronger or more emotions and take more risks. The website raisingchildren.net.au gives some good tips for encouraging good behaviour and strengthening positive brain connections. They are:

  • Let your child take some healthy risks. New and different experiences help your child develop an independent identity, explore grown-up behaviour, and move towards independence.
  • Help your child find new creative and expressive outlets for her feelings. She might be expressing and trying to control new emotions. Many teenagers find that doing or watching sport or music, writing and other art forms are good outlets.
  • Talk through decisions step by step with your child. Ask about possible courses of action your child might choose, and talk through potential consequences. Encourage your child to weigh up positive consequences or rewards against negative ones.
  • Use family routines to give your child’s life some structure. These might be based around school and family timetables.
  • Provide boundaries and opportunities for negotiating those boundaries. Young people need guidance and limit-setting from their parents and other adults.
  • Offer frequent praise and positive rewards for desired behaviour. This reinforces pathways in your child’s brain.
  • Be a positive role model. Your behaviour will show your child the behaviour you expect.
  • Stay connected with your child.You’ll probably want to keep an eye on your child’s activities and friends. Being open and approachable can help you with this.
  • Talk with your child about his developing brain. Understanding this important period of growth might help your child process his feelings. It might also make taking care of his brain more interesting.

Adolescence is a tricky stage, I hope that this has given you some more understanding of what is happening inside your teen’s mind.

You may also want to view these videos for more information on the teenage brain:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiduiTq1ei8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P629TojpvDU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PzT_SBl31-s

Charissa Foster

Assistant Head of Middle School

The Life

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