The teenage brain

December 7, 2009

by Jenni Sebora

The teen creed:

“Don’t let your parents down, They brought you up.

Be humble enough to obey; You may give orders someday.

Choose companions with care, you become what they are.

Guard your thoughts; what you think, you are.

Choose only a date who would make a good mate.

Be master of your habits or they will master you.

Don’t be a show-off when you drive, drive with safety and arrive.

Don’t let the crowd pressure you; stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”

I have this creed hanging near my children’s bedrooms, along with “Children need love the most when they least deserve it.”

Parenting a teen can have its challenges. A teen is not the same as a baby or a young child, but a teenager is also not an adult. Sometimes we forget this. More research is being done on the teenage brain to help us learn more about how it functions.

The teenage brain has been thought to be a young adult brain. However, research is showing that a teenager’s brain is quite different than that of an adult’s brain, just as it is different than that of a baby or a child brain, doctor and senior assistant in Neurology at Children’s Hospital Boston Frances E. Jensen noted in an article on the teen brain (www.childrenshospital.org) – calling the teenage brain “the intermediate zone.”

She further noted that not enough of the basic research about the developing teenage brain has been put into use in regards to high school education, how they are treated in the legal system, and how they may be more vulnerable to substance abuse.

The teenage brain is at a late childhood stage and is not yet a fully mature adult brain, so, as she put it, they are at the crossroads of those two points of development. We know that children can learn very quickly (can learn two languages easier than an adult can), and teenagers are yet at this point of peak learning. They are closer to reaching the adult stage, yet still more able to pick things up easier, but a teenager’s brain is more vulnerable.

As we get older, we develop stronger connections between the different regions of the brain, developing from the back of the brain to the front. The last part to develop is the frontal lobe, which controls judgment and insight and stops us from too much risk-taking behaviors (hopefully). These are areas that teens struggle with the most.

We observe our teenagers memorizing facts, and when they make bad judgments, it doesn’t make sense to us, but it really does make sense. Dr. Jensen calls this the paradox - teens are sharp on one hand in regards to their ability to learn, but the connectivity is behind.

We know that a teenager can know right from wrong, but that does not mean they won’t make mistakes or bad judgments. Just as their bodies are physically maturing and changing, so are their brains.