Until about 20 years ago, very little was known about the brains of teenagers. Indeed, it was widely believed that the brain stopped changing once a child reached puberty. And while it is true that 90-95% of the brain’s growth occurs by the age of six, we now know that the remainder of its development takes place in adolescence and young adulthood. This is a very important and challenging time for your teenager, and it can be a great help to them, as well as to their parents and teachers, to understand what is going on in their brains.
Advanced brain imaging has revealed that the teenage brain has a lot of plasticity, meaning it can change, adapt and respond to its environment. The growth of the brain during the teenage years refers not to expanding in size, but rather to increased connectivity between brain regions. The process of the creation of these connections, known as myelination, starts at the back of the brain and moves towards the front over time. This means that the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain involved in decision-making, planning and impulse control, is the last part to mature. Because the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers may rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala when making decisions and solving problems. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour.
Teens also experience major changes in the limbic system; the part responsible for regulating emotions. If you are noticing that sometimes your teenager’s behaviour seems quite mature, but at other times it seems illogical, impulsive and overly emotional, this can be explained by the back-to-front development their brain is undergoing and the mismatch this causes. The limbic system, which gives the rewarding feeling of taking risks, is structurally more developed than the prefrontal cortex, which prevents us from taking risks. Add to this the fact that brain signals are not getting to the back of the brain fast enough to regulate their emotions, and we might be inclined to forgive them for this apparent lack of control.
Talking to teenagers openly about their ongoing brain development can be very useful in helping them to recognise and understand their feelings and behaviours. Explaining the role of the limbic system, the influence of peers, and the malleability of the teenage brain establishes a basis for students to better understand themselves and exert control over their emotional, social, and academic lives. It is also worth highlighting that although the prefrontal cortex is in development stages, it responds well to training and it is a good opportunity to teach them about self-regulation, thinking ahead, and empathy.
What can parents do?
There are a number of things that parents and teachers can do to help teenagers cope with the changes they are going through. Being a positive role model is crucial, as teens will learn behaviours and relationships from the adults around them. Speaking openly about feelings and providing models of how to do so is also important. Actively listening to your teenager’s feelings, with respect and without judgement, can be a powerful way of strengthening your relationship. It can also be useful to allow teenagers to take some healthy, calculated risks, while at the same time providing clear boundaries and expectations, with room for negotiation. Talk through decisions step by step, exploring possible courses of action and their potential consequences, and weighing up pros and cons can make a difference. Many teenagers also benefit from finding or exploring creative outlets to help them express themselves and develop a unique and independent identity. Providing plenty of positive reinforcement helps by appealing to the well-developed reward system in the brain, so be sure to praise them when they demonstrate positive behaviours.
At Amity, our teenagers learn important self-regulation and character-building skills and values which are integrated into the IB Middle Years curriculum*, designed with their overall development in mind. This is part of the Approaches to Learning (ATL’s) that focusses on helping students to be self-regulated and to become more autonomous learners. We will share more about these ATL’s in one of our next blogs! If you’d like to learn more about the IB curriculum, you can find more information in this previous blog. And if you would like to get in touch with us, we will be happy to answer any further questions you may have.
*Amity International School Amsterdam is a candidate school for the MYP and DP pursuing authorisation as an IB World School. IB World Schools share a common philosophy – a commitment to high-quality, challenging, international education. Only schools authorised by the IB Organisation can offer any of its four academic programmes: the Primary Years Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP), the Diploma Programme (DP), or the Career-related Programme (CP). Candidate status gives no guarantee that authorisation will be granted.