[Bodymind] The teenage brain
Here is a letter which I received and answered in a column also called Bodymind 25 years ago. It relates to a more recent Rappler article, “The Case of the Missing Teenage Brain”.
(The original letter was sent 25 years ago, but this is an answer that includes research done in the 21st century.)
Dear Dr Holmes,
My son and I used to have fun together. I would take him to school whenever I could. We would often have lunch together. I would go to his softball games all the time and he seemed happy. I was such a strong presence in his life. We were #1 in each others’ lives and there is nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.
He is 14 now and everything has changed overnight. Everything we used to do together he no longer has time for. He has such a short temper; an ordinary discussion about common everyday events eventually leads to his flaring up and leaving the table. Once he even threatened me with a knife.
What can I do to bring it back to what it was like before?
Thank you for your letter which you wrote over 24 years ago. I stand by the answer that I gave you then. I hope it helped your relationship with your son at that time.
But now I have even better news! Even though this is too late to provide you with answers to help your relationship with your son, I am hoping it can help relationships with sons and grandsons.
Neuroscience has made so much difference in the field of therapy as it provides an objective basis ( as opposed to mere theory) to explain behavior. By including information on the teen brain, I am hoping my answer might help you share this information with others, perhaps even your own son Paul once he starts having issues with his own sons.
It seems clashes between parents and their teenagers are inevitable. The basics still hold: children appreciate consistency, need to be listened to as well as to be taught, and will develop self esteem partly depending on the kind of parenting they have. However, it is healthy for them to establish an identity (and a safe place without their parents butting in, no matter how much they are loved and appreciated).
Achieving this goal can be frightening; and some teens find it easier for themselves (though harder for their parents) to do so if there is a rift that will keep them from falling back into the usual routine of asking their parents for help.
The results of neuroscientific research give us a clearer understanding, for example, of why teens behave as they do.
You see, up until the recent past, there were mainly two views regarding adolescence and a person had to choose one or the other as his credo. No fence sitting, no “yes, but maybe,” etc. Adolescence was either a matter of biology or of culture.
Author Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, who in 2008 wrote Living and Parenting: A Down-to-Earth Guide, described the first as the “Sturm und Drang" theory of adolescence which basically maintains that adolescence is an unavoidable, stormy period in the life of young adults – along the lines of “temporary insanity”.
According to this line of reasoning, teenagers are unpredictable time bombs, moody, anxious and troubled, driven by raging hormones. The downside to this view, Rabbi Horowitz said, “is that there seems to be little that parents and society can do to rein in teenagers other than to exercise damage control.”
The second view of adolescence was that it depended on one's cultural upbringing, rather than on biological factors leading to universally traumatic and stressful times for teens and their parents alike.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead, author of Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), seemed to confirm this alternate view with the research she did. Anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict even posited a theory that the difficulty of adolescence had only western culture (which, let’s face it, many urban Filipino parents resonate with most) to blame.
Dr Benedict hypothesized that if the acquisition of childish submission to the acquisition of feeling of responsibility upon entering adulthood did not happen in such a rush as it does in Western society, a great deal of the sturm und drang during the years of adolescence could be prevented.
In fact, Dianna West, author of The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (2007) wrote: “There was a time, literally, when there were no teenagers.” In virtually every culture in the history of the world prior to late 20th century Western culture, children immediately became adults without going through “adolescence,” thus suggesting that the theory that adolescence is cultural is at least partly true.
The best news there is, however, is that these two theories, 1. adolescence is dependent on biology and 2. adolescence is a matter of culture, are both right.
Studies in neuroscience have proven this to be so.
Since there is a plethora of information on how culture affects teenage behavior (starting with the books mentioned above), allow me to share the latest findings in neuroscience, which is the scientific study of the nervous system, including the brain.
Traditionally, neuroscience was seen simply as a branch of biology. Now, however, it is an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as psychology, philosophy, sociology and the hard sciences.
You see, Paul, it was only when we had more powerful new technologies that scientists were able to track the growth of the brain. The research has clearly debunked several myths but more than that, it has led to a deeper understanding of the reasons teens behave the way they do. Indeed, culture and biology contribute, but the interaction between the two – nature and nurture – is what is most important and makes the most powerful impact.
In key ways, the young brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s and that is the major reason teens do not behave as maturely as we would want, and even expect them to, and sometimes wrongly insist on.
EXAMPLE 1: Brain scans suggest that different parts of the cortex mature at different rates. Areas involved in more basic functions mature first: those involved, for example, in the processing of information from the senses, and in controlling movement. The parts of the brain responsible for more "top-down" control, controlling impulses, and planning ahead – the hallmarks of adult behavior – are among the last to mature.
EXAMPLE 2: Brain imaging studies also suggest that the responses of teens to emotionally loaded images and situations are much stronger in comparison to adults and even younger children. The brain changes underlying these patterns involve brain centers and signaling molecules that are part of the reward system with which the brain motivates behavior.
Data from several studies also suggest that teenagers have stronger gut response than adults because they do not evaluate the consequences of what they're doing. More often than not, this results in more impulsive behavior, so they tend to be more spontaneous and less inhibited than adults.
These age-related changes shape how much different parts of the brain are activated in response to experience, and in terms of behavior, the urgency and intensity of emotional reactions. (Paul, this may even be the major reason that, while a child or another adult would not have pulled a knife on you, your son did.)
Dr Yergellun-Todd, a neuropsychologist at Harvard University's McLean Hospital says: “Research goes to helping understand differences between adults and teenagers in terms of communications. And I think that it does for two reasons. One, we saw that adults can actually look at fearful faces and perceive them as fearful faces, and they label them as such, whereas teenagers...don't label them the same way. So it means that they're reading external visual cues [differently], or they're looking at affect differently.”
In pragmatic terms, what this means is that the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online, or even more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity. This may explain why teens seem to have a stronger need for/attraction to novelty and a greater tendency to act on impulse, despite the risks such behaviors may involve.
In other words, we adults must constantly remind ourselves that, though teens may look physically mature, they may not appreciate consequences or weigh information the same way as adults do.
To me one of the most important lessons neuroscience can impart to parents with teenage kids is not facts from research alone, but rather attitudes that help them to be more relaxed should their expectations not be met. One way is to remind themselves constantly that the way their teens behave is not meant to be taken personally.
If your child seems more impulsive, hot tempered, emotional (rather than logical) than you’d like him to be, that is not necessarily a function of poor parenting on your part. It could just be that his teen brain has not caught up with his body or with your standards (which may be more realistic for someone your age, rather than his).
While teens may be frustrating to us, think of how frustrating we, and the rest of the world, can be to them. Simply because their brains have not caught up with their bodies and they are asked to be able to do what, neuroscientifically, they may not be capable of doing. What I hope will keep us going is knowing that, like all trials, “This too, shall pass.”
All the best. — MG Holmes