Originally published by Melanie Kennedy on KUTV News

(KUTV) Life Coach Trigena Halley from Peak Performance CCT, LLC visited Fresh Living to discuss the Teenage Brain.

I sit and write this article surrounded by my own four teenagers (ranging in age from 13-17) and a group of their friends chattering and having fun. Unlike many, I think the teen years are my favorite so far, I see most teens as super sharp thinkers, with unlimited potential and opinions.

In some ways, for me as a mom, the teen years seem way more manageable than the younger years. So I guess it is not shocking in my study of neuroscience and its impact on leadership and behavior I gravitated to the study of neuroscience and the teenage brain. My stage in life with my family and the fact the teen years intrigue me has led me to some interesting findings.

Most of us think alien beings have taken over our kids when they reach the teen years! According to Dr. Jensen, professor of neurology and the chair of the neurology department at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania our teenagers have NOT been taken over by aliens. Although, if you are a parent of one or more teenagers, your vantage point at times may look very different! When it comes to our teenagers, what we often think of, as “alien”, is actually lack of normal brain development. In Dr. Jensen’s book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Gide to Raising Adolescents, she describes the central paradox about teen brains – the teen brain offers major advantages on the one hand but unperceived and often unacknowledged vulnerabilities on their other.

Most research indicates while the brain continues to develop throughout our lifetime the greatest leap in development happens in the teen years to mid 20s. This means parents, and first time employers, are working with an unfinished product – there is often much potential but little knowledge of what or how to use it on the part of the teen.

So, what should we know about teen brain development, and, more importantly, what can we do to support positive and effective communication and relationships?

Processing and Thinking Skills – the brain enters a stage of rapid development during the teen years. The brain’s processing power is like that of adult when given time to access and process information. However, in the heat of the moment decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions as the teenage brain relies more on the limbic system, which is the emotional seat of the brain. Sound decision-making originates in the more rational part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is diminished or “shuts down” when the emotional side of the brain is activated. The tension of the teen brain often means teens do things like punch a wall or drive too fast, yet when asked, they clearly know better. Teenagers do stupid things not because they are stupid but because their brains work differently (because it is still developing) than adults.

Teen Outbursts – social behavior and abstract thought are beginning to emerge and sometimes they use their parents as a way to try out this new process. These tantrums and conflicts are often viewed as self-expression by teens versus stepping back and working to understand another person’s point of view. The teen years are produce a huge amount of social, emotional and cognitive instability, couple that with their lack of ability to fully cope due to their brains not being fully developed. The ability to step back and view the situation logically, rationally and objectively is still in process. In most cases parental support provides structure and the ability to model how to stay calm when resolving issues.

Risky Conduct – the brain is wired to seek reward, and teen brains are highly wired to seek reward, making them vulnerable to risky behavior. By late adolescence, (17 years old and after), the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and long-term perspective-taking is thought to help reign in some of the behavior they were tempted by in middle adolescence. Until then “the brakes come into play later than the accelerator of the brain” in terms of prefrontal cortex and limbic system development.

Center of the Universe – oxytocin increases feelings of trust and emotional bonding and research indicates an increased sensitivity to its effects in the limbic system has also been linked to feeling self-consciousness. In teens this means they feel like everyone is watching them and/or it promotes a sense of self-centeredness. For most teens this is the first time they are seeing themselves as autonomous, they begin to explore who they want to become and how they want to impact the world. The teen brain has yet to develop enough to handle “shades of grey” which is important as they head out to navigate the world.

Intense emotions – the limbic system is also critical to the formation of memories and emotions. The amygdala is part of the limbic system and is believed to connect sensory information to emotional responses. Active brain development, along with hormonal changes, may give rise to newly intense experiences of rage, fear, aggression (to both self and others), excitement and sexual attraction. As teens grow into adults the limbic system begins to align versus compete with the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is associated with planning, impulse control and decision-making. As the brain develops it begins to be able to process emotion and have an easier time interpreting the emotions and behavior of others. Until this process is complete, your teen will often misread others, which will lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding outwardly displayed in tears and/or anger.

Parents are still important During the teen years, separating from the family and establishing some autonomy is key but that does not mean a teen no longer needs parents — even when they plead otherwise. Treating a 16 or 17 year old as an adult sets them up for failure. They will need structure and parental support.

According to a survey of teenagers, 84 percent think highly of their mothers and 89 percent think highly of their fathers. More than three-quarters of teenagers enjoy spending time with their parents; 79 percent enjoy hanging out with Mom and 76 percent like chilling with Dad.

During the teen years when their brain is still developing, parents may want to consider the following:

  • Listening more than telling and listening to the “whole person” – words, actions, tone, etc.
  • Communicating often and specifically, ask questions and listen.
  • Setting boundaries and expectations early – rather than having to put them in place during a crisis.
  • Be willing to “flex” and/or change your boundaries, rules, perspective when presented with new information and/or as your teen matures.
  • Stay calm, don’t yell, judge or talk down to your teen.
  • Explain and coach vs tell and dictate.
  • Provide structure without being confining.
  • Be good role models, when words and behavior are in conflict behavior always wins.

Interested in learning more about The Teenage Brain contact Trigena attrigena@me.com or 801.915.4046. PeakPerformanceCCT.com

References • The Teenage Brain: An Neuroscientist’ Guide to Raising Adolescents by Frances E. Jensen, MD • The Teenage Brain: What Parents Need to Know by Frances E. Jensen, MD, grownandflown.com, Web Article – http://grownandflown.com/teenage-brain/ • The Mysterious Workings of the Teenage Brain by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, TEDGlobal 2012 -https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_jayne_blakemore_the_mysterious_workings_of_the_adolescent_brain • The Teen Brain, by Debra Bradley Ruder, September-October 2008, Harvard Magazine,http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/09/the-teen-brain.html