What’s going on in your teenager’s brain?
Is your teenager’s emotional flip-flopping stressing you out? Are you baffled by his ability to go from making mature and sensible choices one minute, to riding down the freeway helmet- and handlebar-free the next?
If you’re anything like me, your teen’s impulsive behaviour can feel confusing, frustrating and even downright scary.
But apparently, it’s also completely normal.
That’s because, unlike your fully developed rational adult brain, your teenager’s brain is still under construction.
Your son’s prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for his logical, rational and future-focused thinking – is still a work in progress. And like most construction projects, it’s likely to take longer than you think, with completion expected at around age 25.
To compensate, your teen will often turn to his pleasure and reward centre (the amygdala) to make decisions and solve problems. This is the part of the brain associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour.
Which doesn’t always work out so well…
The good news is that the growing and developing teen brain is also super flexible, creative and open to new ideas and ways of thinking. Here’s how to use your newfound neuroscience knowledge to support your son’s healthy brain development. And guide him towards smarter, healthier choices.
1. Skip the lecture
If your teen does make a questionable choice, avoid slipping into lecture mode. Your son’s developing brain is wired to process emotions first and explanations second – if at all. His focus will be on your anger or disappointment, which will cause him to stress out and shut down. Leaving your well-crafted lecture a lesson that goes unlearned.
Instead, take time to calm down before you respond. Try asking your teen to reflect on what went wrong. Ask how he could’ve approached things differently. Let him know you trust him to make better choices in the future and remind him that you are always available if he needs to talk things through.
2. Support him to explore safely
Your son’s brain is wired to seek out independence, adventure and new experiences. It’s natural for him to test the limits. While it’s important to set boundaries that keep him safe, where possible try to be flexible and let him prove himself. You’ll be surprised how responsible your teen can be if given a little room to roam.
Encourage his curiosity and sense of adventure by allowing him to try new things that are both exciting and safe – whether it’s indoor rock climbing or performing in the school production. And allow him to fail sometimes. The creative centre of your teen’s brain will embrace the opportunity to learn, get back up and try a new approach.
3. Feed his brain with healthy habits
The growing teenage brain needs a healthy environment in order to thrive. Make sure your son is getting plenty of fresh air, exercise, healthy food and 8 to 10 hours of sleep.
If despite the broccoli and beach walks, your son seems stressed or overwhelmed, keep an eye out for any unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol or drug use. These can feel like quick fixes to your teen but can be destructive to healthy brain development. Be honest and open about your own experiences and model healthy coping strategies. Your teenager is watching how you respond to tough times, and he can’t be what he can’t see.
4. Explain his brain to help guide his thinking
Teenagers are inherently curious. Ultimately, they are looking to understand themselves. Empower your son by giving him information about his brain development and the conditions it needs to make healthy choices, without adding a layer of judgement. Armed with this knowledge, he’ll be more likely to pause, take a few deep breaths and give himself some space away from his (equally amygdala-led) mates before making his next big decision.
It won’t always be easy, but every effort you make to understand, accept and embrace your teen’s wild and wonderful brain builds strong foundations for a loving, lasting relationship with your son.
And that’s a no-brainer.
Want more teen brain facts and practical parenting tips? Check out this factsheet from the Center for Parent & Teen Communication.
Bec Cavalôt is a Melbourne-based writer and mum of two boys. You can find her at www.cavalotcopy.com This article is about Parenting
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY
Subscribe to Understanding Boys. It’s free!
Got boys? Sign up for tips and advice you'll actually use.