We’ve had good relationships with our kids up to this point. We’ve driven the carpools, wiped away the tears. We might have faced some challenges along the way, but we’ve been able to work through them and guide our (mostly) cooperative children. Even though we know that teens are supposed to pull away from us and seek independence, the reality can be a major shock to parents.
I’m reminded of the quote by essayist Nora Ephron: “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
The Teenage Brain
From Rebel Without a Cause to The Breakfast Club to American Pie, the teenage years have been synonymous in our culture with angst, rebellion, and emotional drama. Until the past 10 years or so, the explanation was that the psychological and developmental tasks of adolescence were to blame. This transitional process is characterized by separation from parents, acceptance by peers, finding first loves, and building unique adult identities.
Over the last decade, however, functional MRI studies have given us new information about how the teenage brain works. The brain’s reward and fear centers mature first, making the teen brain more susceptible to anxiety and fear. Hormonal changes in puberty hit receptor sites in the amygdala making teenagers more emotional. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for judgment, impulse control, executive function and insight, is the last part to develop, and isn’t complete until into our twenties.
We also know from fMRI studies that the neural connections between parts of the brain are ongoing major reconstruction and rewiring during the teen years. The growth of synapses makes the teen brain a “sensation seeking learning machine” as Frances Jensen, MD, explains, in The Teenage Brain.
Complicating matters, dopamine, the pleasure hormone pleasure, is heightened in adolescence which means teenagers experience great reward from taking risks. So, our teenagers have an increased opportunity to learn but they also have an increased vulnerability to risk.
The teen brain is about 80% mature. It’s no wonder that it’s been described as all accelerator and no brakes. When we think about the highly stimulating and distracting world of the Internet, it’s like adding high octane gas to a fire.
Gender Differences In Teenage Development
Gender matters too. In adolescence, there are real differences in brain functions between male and female brains. There is some evidence to suggest that the jumping around from screen to screen, “multitasking,” negatively affects a boy’s brain more, which tends to lag behind the girl’s brain in organizational and attention skills during the teen years.
The amygdala, the seat of emotions in the brain, develops about 18 months sooner in females than males. This has implications for our teens online lives, as teens flock to highly stimulating gaming and social media sites.
This explains my client, 15 year-old Jackson, who is highly anxious about his upcoming finals, but grabbed an electric fence on a dare. And 16 year-old Belle, a straight A student, headed for a prestigious college, who sent naked photos to a boy via Snapchat, and later was mortified when he shared them at school. The research shows that our teens are not firing on all cylinders.