A fifteen year old girl sneaks out the window at 2am to go meet her boyfriend and gets escorted home by the police. A sixteen year old boy speeds down the road at 120 km an hour until he rolls his car into a ditch. A group of fourteen year olds bring a water bottle full of gin to school and drink enough to get alcohol poisoning. The adult reaction to these behaviours is often an outraged and incredulous "What the hell did you think you were doing?!?" And the teenage reply is often a shrug and mumbled "I dunno." So what is behind this sort of exasperating and irresponsible behavior? Are they insane? Oblivious? Indifferent? The answer can be found if we peer into the structure of their brains, and the physical changes that are occurring.
For a clue, we can go back to much earlier in the teenager's life. Every parent remembers some version of the "terrible twos." A time of temper tantrums and life threatening (without adult supervision) behaviors. Toddlers are indeed going through something that they will do again as a teenager: massive brain growth. In both ages, the overproduction of new neurons, or exuberance, creates a frenzied confusion as the brain reorganizes. Instead of a toddler's screaming fit on the floor, the teenager slams doors and rolls eyes. Instead of crayons and tiny blocks in the mouth, a fifth of vodka. Instead of running out into the street, driving down one way too fast. We can blame it all on the brain.
The part of the brain that undergoes the most dramatic change during adolescence is the part that makes us the most human: the prefrontal cortex. Know as the executive brain, the prefrontal cortex is in charge of emotional regulation, impulse control, and planning. Located behind our forehead, it is the part of our brain that has grown proportionally huge in humans compared to other animals. Until only about 20 years ago, scientists believed that the brain was done growing in early childhood. But new advances in technology have shown that the brain continues to grow and create new neurons throughout a whole lifetime. And the prefrontal cortex is no exception, reaching twice it's adult levels of neuronal density by age 2, and then again by age 12.
When the brain creates this overabundance of neurons, the effect on behaviour is seemingly paradoxical. With more neurons, the brain works less efficiently. Processing is slower and some abilities that were established disappear for a while. And this action is purposeful. The teenage brain is preparing a massive reorganization of skills and priorities, moving from childhood to adulthood.
What does an individual without a well functioning prefrontal cortex look like in the world? An early account of a man named Phineas Gage gave a perfect example. Working for the railroads in the nineteenth century, Gage was a responsible and well liked man until an explosion sent a metal tamping rod through his skill, in an area that scientist later showed to be part of his prefrontal cortex. After the accident he could function normally, but his behaviour was impulsive, volatile and often inapropriate. He stole and cursed, and had no ability to plan ahead.
When faced with a rude comment from a coworker, a frustrating traffic situation or an unwelcome distraction, most adults can stop, feel an emotion or thought, and go about their business without reacting. This is the prefrontal cortex in action. The part of our brain that says "Wait!" or "Am I in danger?" or "What would happen if I...?" in response to an emotion or thought. It is our problem solver and emotional brake. And this part of our brain is still restructuring, developing and wiring itself until our early twenties.
So in answer to the question of whether teenagers are insane, oblivious and indifferent, the answer is: somewhat. And that's normal. Even though they may be 5 foot 10 inches tall, their brain is not functioning the same as an adult brain. And because they are paying close attention to certain things that are salient in their view, they may be oblivious or indifferent to things which are deemed important by well meaning adults in their lives. And as this brain rewiring takes place throughout the teenage years, the brain will continue to prune away excess and unneeded synapses, making the existing ones faster, and more fixed. The end product will be a more efficient, more limited, and more permanent adult brain.
So what can we do to a support and optimize this brain growth through the teenage years? The critical period of intense learning and restructuring, especially in the prefrontal cortex, creates an opportunity to build a foundational level of emotional and cognitive skills for life. We can do this by teaching and modelling emotional regulation skills, cognitive flexibility skills, and stress reduction skills. We can change our expectations and offer support. We can play the role of a backup prefrontal cortex by collaborating with them to explore options and possible outcomes.
For kids that need more intensive learning and assistance, a strong therapeutic relationship with a clinical counsellor can give them the support and tools that they require to weather this challenging time. A clinical counsellor is also a resource for adults who want to gain and cultivate the emotional and cognitive skills that they hope to teach to the teenagers in their lives.
The prerequisite for any teaching or modelling of skills is relationship. A strong parental bond through adolescence is challenging but worth the effort. By unconditionally supporting the growing person who is your teenager, while at the same time holding him or her accountable for behaviour, parents can be a steady and reassuring anchor through the storm of adolescence.
*We are all doing our best. With empathy, education and effort we can make our best better*
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