Friday, August 29, 2014

Unlocking the preteen and adolescent brain

Ever wonder if your pre-teen or teenager is brain damaged? You aren't alone and for good reason.  They kind-of are.  Well not exactly damaged - they just are under-developed.  

Babies are born with the ability to hear, to see, to move.  As they get older they develop to ability to communicate non-verbally and then verbally.  As children age, naturally they develop the skills to do much of what we adults are able to do.  As they begin puberty, they grow to be about our size and may even have relatively similar physical strength as we do.  But even if they start looking like adults, we have to remember that they are not. Their bodies begin to look more grown-up, but that brain of theirs needs a bit more time to mature.

The human brain is not fully developed until about the mid-20's.  Yes, you heard me right.  Target age 25 as a good year.  The pre-teen years specifically are a time for synaptic growth.  People have the most synapses they will have over their entire life at ages 11 (girls) and 13 (boys).  As kids enter teen years, myelination and neural pruning takes over and synapse production slows again.  What that means, is that the pre-adolescence and teen-age brain is growing and changing like crazy.

Before you think - hey more synapses should make him smarter - you have to realize that a boys brain at age 13 is a briar patch of connections.   More connections does not mean better when you have an overproduction of synapses.  It actually leads to inefficient processing.

Enter in neural pruning - this allows the synapses to fully myelinate and function properly.  Myelin is a coating that insulates the pathways and makes them work more efficiently.   The pathways that are not used, die off and the other ones grow stronger.  The determination about what pathways should stay, and what should go, is made by what gets used.  The Use it or Loose it principle is in effect.

So the first thing to remember, is that the adolescent and pre-adolsecnt brains are undergoing an explosion of growth and pruning away what isn't needed, making their little minds works inefficiently in these frustrating years.

The second thing to know is that the part of the brain that is really developing the most is the pre-frontal cortex.  This it the part of the brain right around your forehead and it is like the CEO of the brain.  It is responsible for organizing behavior in time and context.  This is something that even some adults I know struggle with (good thing our brains keep growing as we do).  As luck with have it, the prefrontal cortex is the is the last part of the brain to mature.  How does this translate to actual teen behavior?

Most parents of a teen could answer it with astounding accuracy:

Teens suffer with planning ahead, 
problem-solving,  prioritizing,
self-evaluation, risk and reward assessment, 
regulation of emotion  

One minute they seem like an adult and the next minute they are acting like a toddler.

It is not that they can't do these things, it is just that the briar patch in their brains means it takes much more effort to actually do it right.

So it happens less often and less well.

What does that mean for you as the frustrated adult of this giant toddler?  Funny enough many of the things we discuss with parenting a toddler are in effect again.

1- Recognize that the brain will reward the body when it is stimulated in certain ways and the brain will structurally adapt to accept and expect those stimuli.  Drugs, tobacco, sugar, processed foods- all of these things actually influence the teen brain as it is 'choosing' how to grow.  "Pathways and patterns developed during adolescence are going to influence kids' behaviors for the rest of their lives"(Dr. Nicole Speer, 2014, personal correspondence).  What may be fairly harmless to adults, can be so damaging to the pre-teen and teen brains because their brains are particularly vulnerable.  If they get hooked as an teen, they are hooked for life.  So get them hooked on good things.  

Feed the brain with good stuff.  Think of stimulating all five senses every day.  The pathways that get fed are the ones that will grow, so physical exercise, good foods, music, language, literature, science - all of it is great!  Television and video games, not so good.  Unless of course that is all you want your child doing when they are an adult. There are some studies that tout the cognitive benefits of some video game exposure (reference), but in general you want diversification of the cognitive input.

2- Take a deep breathe.  Give yourself and your kid a break.  Remind yourself that she or he has a poorly developed brain.  It isn't ALL his fault when he forgets his lunch (again) or walks around the house in a bit of a daze unable to focus on the job you just asked of him.  Pick your battles.  Lower your expectations just a bit.   Don't let them be rude or cruel to others, but don't berate them for being an airhead.

3- Engage with them to get the prefrontal cortex stimulated in the right ways.  Walk your children through 'what if' scenarios.  Ask them pointed and directed questions "If you go to sleep early/late tonight how do you think you will feel tomorrow morning for your soccer game?"  Your engagement with them like this will help them develop better critical thinking skills and will improve their risk/reward assessments.  Let them experience the negative consequences of some minor bad decisions.     When they asks for help - work out some strategies together rather than swooping in to rescue them.   For instance take your child to an office supply store, let him pick out a planner that he likes and let him develop his own method of keeping track of assignments.  His way may be different that your way.   Give him quiet space to do his homework so that he isn't as easily distracted, but let him attempt to do his homework where ever he wants then discuss later what is most effective and when he thinks he is most time efficient.  All of these things will help that pre-frontal cortex keep developing along optimally.  

4-  Be careful about the feedback, but continue to give it. Self-evaluation is one of the areas that suffers at this age.  They may think they are the start of the team, or they may think no one likes them.  Help point out specific facts or pieces of evidence to bolster them or to keep them grounded.  Be honest and don't be hypocritical.  For instance,  if you have a hard time misplacing your keys (wallet, gym card, phone what ever), point out that you also tend to loose things, and XYZ has helped you keep from loosing your mind.  

5- Keep them safe.  Your child's ability to evaluate of risk and rewards may be the scariest aspect of that underdeveloped brain.  Psychologists refer to adolescents as suffering from a "personal fable".  They don't seem to understand that they are subject to the same potential dangers as others.  Even the smartest kids drive too fast and engage in other risky behaviors.  Provide them with curfews and remind them of the safety rules and why you have them.  Insist on seat belts ALWAYS and discuss what it means to be a human projectile.  Require on helmets when bike riding or skateboarding.   Talk about pool safety and the dangers of diving where it is too shallow.  Keep it all real - Do you know a physician or an attorney? Ask them to take your child to a juvenile sentencing or on a tour of the trauma center at the hospital.  Find an online drivers-ed class and insist that they take the class before you allow them to start traveling in cars with friends.

6- Give them emotional support and direction.  Without that prefrontal cortex fully matured they really have a hard time regulating their emotional.  Just like with younger children, you can provide them with clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable.  Going outside to hit the punching bag - okay.  Putting a hole in my wall (or your brother) - NOT OKAY.  Taking a run around the neighborhood - okay, but let me know you are leaving.  Crying - okay.  Walking around the house wailing - not okay. Similarly set them up to succeed.  Give them a quiet place to study and an afternoon snack every day.  Recognize they are having tough time too so set them up to succeed without micromanaging them.

7-  Encourage good sleep habits.  Routine is still king.  Have a regular bedtime and a regular wake time but recognize that during adolescence their sleep needs increase.    Their circadian rhythms shift, so allow them to stay awake a little later at night and let them sleep in earlier.  Maybe that means that some of the things they used to do in the AM (making their lunch, packing their bag), need to be done at night before bed.  Click here for more on sleep guidelines by age.

Our kids are only "ours" for a short time and we do have the ability to help them through this next phase is life in real and concrete ways.  It is tough on us and it is tough on them.  Love them, help them, forgive them.  Yes they make us crazy, but in a just a few short years they will be 'adults' and their brains will work so much better!

Until then, hang in there and thanks for stopping by and thinking with me!

* Special thanks to my friend and former colleague Dr. Nicole Speer (Institute for Cognitive Science) for her input on this post.

** If you are interested in resources to teach your kids about the brain check out Campfires and Cleats - Chris did a great post listing where she listed some good homeschooling resources.

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