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  • Writer's pictureSara Filipčić

Is Your Teenager's Brain a Mystery to You?

Got an awkward, challenging, rebellious teenager? Perhaps they’re just being awesome, creative and resourceful? The teenage years are a crucial period of cognitive, psycho-social, and identity development. Understanding the changes and challenges that

come with this period can help both parents and teenagers unlock their full potential.

Adolescence is a remarkable and transformative phase of life, where the brain is sculpted by a rapid process of synaptic pruning and plasticity – known as “the second window of opportunity”.  This critical period marks the brain’s second wave of expeditious change and growth, similar to the formative first years of life.

During this time, external factors wield a mighty influence on the brain circuitry that shapes key developmental tasks. From cultivating intimate relationships and building a strong sense of identity, to mastering self-confidence, self-control, and social skills, adolescence is a fertile ground for the emergence of lifelong traits and habits. One of the biggest changes during the teenage years is the way that young people think and solve problems. Around the age of 15, teenagers begin to test more boundaries, thinking in abstract ways and logically solving problems with more agency. This is also the time when young people start to develop post-conventional thinking, where they make decisions based on their own values, standards, and attitudes rather than simply following the beliefs and conventions of authority figures. However, this newfound sense of independence can also lead to a phenomenon known as adolescent ego-centrism, where young people feel like they are more important and different than they really are. This is a result of their heightened cognitive and social understanding, but it can also cause conflicts with parents and peers.

As young people navigate the ups and downs of their emotions and self-image, they may also experience intense physical and psychological pressures, along with conflicts both with their parents and their peers. However, as they progress through the teenage years, these feelings tend to lessen, and they begin to focus more on exploring their identity and finding their place in the world.

The same plasticity that creates the unique adolescent experience also gives parents and educators the power to wield strong influence on the adolescent brain. Repetitive exposure to emotionally regulated people and regulating experiences, such as rhythmic and repetitive sensory experiences like breathing, dancing, and walking, can prepare the teen brain to withstand peer pressure and handle difficult social interactions. Moreover, emotional regulation and the brain structures responsible for it are heavily influenced by parent-child interactions. This means that your ability to stay calm and composed during your teenager’s emotional outbursts can actually help them develop the skills they need to regulate their own emotions in the future.

 So, what can parents and educators do to help teenagers navigate this exciting and challenging period of brain development?

Firstly, stay regulated yourself so that you can model emotional regulation for your teenager. Secondly, provide a positive and supportive environment in which your teenager can practice handling difficult social situations. And finally, understand that the development of the adolescent brain is a “use it or lose it” process – the synapses that survive are the ones that are more often “in use.” 

By providing a positive, supportive, and regulated environment, we can help teenagers develop the neural circuitry they need to succeed in life and achieve their fullest potential.

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