Columns, Imagine That

What’s the brain got to do with it?

During my sixth-grade teaching career, a shy, gentle young man named Ben was in my classroom. One morning I asked Ben why he did not have his outline finished. He looked at me with fierce and fiery eyes, his face turned red, and then he hurled his hefty social studies book at me. I stepped aside and watched the book land in the fish tank! In disbelief, I looked back at Ben and asked, “Why did you do that?” Equally surprised and confused he said, “I don’t know! I guess I was kind of mad.” I wondered how this sweet, quiet young man could do something so out of character. If you are a parent, teacher, or significant adult in the life of a teenager, you may also wonder about the unpredictable behaviors they exhibit. There are good reasons and, as it turns out, it is all in their heads!

At one time scientists mistakenly thought that brain development was complete when the brain reached adult size at about age 10 to 12. With advancements in neuroscience, including functional MRI, current research indicates that the teenage behaviors that have terrified and mystified adults for generations result from several changes occurring in his or her brain during the second biggest developmental growth spurt of their lives: adolescence.

Jenifer Strauss

Most scientific research describes the adolescent brain as immature, or “a work in progress” exemplified by risk-taking, reward-seeking, and impulsive behaviors.

Besides the activation and release of hormones and neurotransmitters during puberty that are partly responsible for the moodiness, aggression, and emotional fluctuations we see in teens, even greater changes are occurring. The result is not a bigger brain, but is more like a wiring upgrade!

The brain’s nerve cells have axons or “cables” that send signals to other nerve cells. During this growth spurt, the axons become more insulated with a fatty substance called myelin, boosting their transmission powers by 100 percent!

Since the nerve cells that fire together, wire together, the brain’s development at this time is experience-dependent. That means the activities that teens engage in, or don’t engage in, at this time will determine the blossoming and the pruning of their brains’ neural networks.

The beauty of the brain

The final piece of this puzzle is the fact that the frontal lobe, or “executive center” of the brain, is the last part to develop. The frontal lobe is thought to be evolutionarily newer and responsible for more complicated thinking like risk assessment, creative problem solving, and planning.

Most scientific research describes the adolescent brain as immature, or “a work in progress” exemplified by risk-taking, reward-seeking, and impulsive behaviors. But in his article, “Beautiful Brains” (National Geographic, October 2011), David Dobbs states that, in the last five years, researchers are explaining current brain and genetic findings with greater evolutionary theory that “casts the teen … as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.” That’s good news!

So, how do we help our teens (and ourselves) during such a tumultuous but important time in their development? In his book, Why Do They Act That Way?, Dr. David Walsh suggests that we not grant teens the divorce they seem to be asking for, but instead give them roots and wings by providing a generous dose of connection, guidance, and love.

It may seem like they want you out of their lives. Truth is, they need you to stay connected but not controlling, interested but not interrogating, to give guidance without suffocation, and to listen without judgment. It may feel like a creative balancing act for parents. But in the end, you will raise a child with healthy independence who can adapt to the demands of adult life and return home for a visit. Imagine that!

Jenifer Strauss is a national speaker and literacy consultant from Traverse City, Michigan. The founder of Story Be Told Productions (www.storybetold.com), she uses STORY to help people connect, communicate and clarify goals. With Mike Mann, Jenifer is co-founder of the Center for Imagination and a guest columnist for Families First Monthly in Traverse City. Regular “Imagine That!” columnists Mike and Laura Mann asked Strauss to share her work with brain development with readers.

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