In the last column we looked at middle childhood and parenting, which will seem easy and tame in comparison to the teen years! Since this developmental stage is so vast, I am focusing on the teen years in two columns. One often hears hormones are to blame for teenage angst. This is only partially true – the real culprit is the brain! Their brains are going through a remodeling and construction phase, which impacts many other developmental components … more about this in a bit. This developmental stage has expanded in recent years, from age 10/11 through late teen to early twenties. Yes, parents, it might seem to last forever!

Teens go through puberty in early adolescence … this brings on many changes in their bodies. Most teens will experience tremendous physical growth from ages 11 through 16, often experiencing a growth spurt during that timeframe. Due to this rapid growth and the developing brain (which uses up to 20 percent of the body’s energy), teens need a lot of the right kinds of food: protein, fruits, vegetables, and food rich in iron. One of the major health issues in teen years is anemia. Many kids do not get the nutrition they need in this stage, so my first parenting tip is to try and make sure your teens are eating healthy foods.

Children in this age group need a lot of sleep and most do not get the 10 to 12 hours of sleep they need! Their brains and their bodies need this for development and growth. However, due to biological changes during puberty, a teen’s circadian rhythm changes, and they are more sensitive to evening light … thus they want to stay up later. But they must get up early in the morning to go to school. Many teens are involved in after school and evening activities. Many teens today are sleep deprived and experience daytime sleepiness regularly. In fact, the National Institutes of Health declared this population “at risk” for sleepiness, which brings about serious consequences. A lot of children are connected to their phones, video games, or computers late into the night compounding the problem. This activity stimulates the brain … and keeps it focused and awake … kids have a hard time falling asleep. Pediatricians recommend no online activity or screen time for at least an hour before going to bed. So, parenting tip number two this week is to make sure your kids are getting enough sleep. This may include parking their phones overnight outside of the bedroom!

During adolescence, teen brains undergo an amazing transformation! This if often called the “second wave” and is so important for parents to understand, therefore I am spending the rest of this column on the topic.

There is an overproduction of nerve cells during early adolescence, which is the brain’s way of reaching out for information and learning. When brains receive new information, these cells form connections with other nerve cells, wiring the brain for new skills and new ways of thinking. Nerve cells and pathways not used are pruned or eliminated. Old pathways that continue to be used are streamlined. This is an important time for learning; this is a “use it or lose it” time for the brain. This is prime time for children to learn. It is so important for parents to monitor their child’s learning. If parents become aware of learning issues, it is important to intervene. Call your teen’s school, set up meetings with teachers and other school personnel to get your child the help they need. Kids are literally wiring their brains based on their activities and the stimulation. So, if they are playing musical instruments or sports, that is what they are wiring their brains for. Learning new skills, learning a foreign language, and gaining knowledge is what the brain is set up to do during this time. If kids are in front of some type of screen for seven to 10 hours per day (which is the average), that is what they are wiring their brains for! Evidence suggests teen brains are especially “hungry” for information gained from active doing, so real-time and real-life activities with a teen involved in trial and error experiences may be the most effective way to learn. So, parents need to consider that when trying to understand their teen’s behaviors and the reasoning behind them.

The prefrontal cortex (just behind the forehead) is the part of the brain that controls planning, organization, regulates mood, and provides the ability for teens to reason and develop control over his/her impulses. This part of the brain is still developing during the teenage years and does not fully mature until the mid-twenties. So, teens need educational experiences in accessing and using their prefrontal cortex. As parents, you can help. Sleep and good nutrition are essential. Parents can encourage their child to try new things and move out of their “comfort zone.” Help your child by allowing them to learn to delay gratification – this increases patience, resilience and creates persistence. Allow your child to make choices and learn from those choices while the stakes are small. However, there needs to be limits on the choices; personal safety is never a choice!

In addition, there is increased sensitivity to social learning during this stage of development. Adolescents focus intently on belonging and earning recognition and respect. This makes them more attuned to social and cultural norms. However, input often equals outcome. If social experiences are positive, then children tend to develop compassion and healthy self-esteem. However, if the social experience is negative, then teens may tend to develop more negative self-esteem and possibly even destructive traits. It is essential parents and guardians monitor their teen for social issues, which in turn lead to emotional problems. Recent research suggests consistent exposure to social media is related to negative thinking. Negative thinking often leads to anxiety and depression. If you have concerns, make sure to talk to your child … ask them how they are feeling. Talk to a doctor, counselor, social worker or pastor if you have concerns. Early intervention is key. We will discuss this more next week.

One final fact about the teen brain – the prevalence of a substance called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells. Dopamine helps regulate attention, movement, learning and emotional responses. Dopamine is also what is known as the reward center in the brain and contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. In teen years, dopamine is in overdrive, so the brain is more than ready to move and learn. So, when a teen experiences something that stimulates dopamine … they want to do that same action again! Risky behaviors are driven by over activity in the dopamine system in the brain. The teen can become addicted to risky behaviors during this time. Drugs, unsafe sexual activity, speeding, online activities, etc., can lead to addiction issues. Teens are naturally drawn to novel and exciting experiences. Parents need to be aware of this and monitor their teens, watching for risky behaviors. Once again, early intervention is key.

Adolescence is a time of remarkable opportunity, and teen brains are adapting to the developmental tasks of this stage of life. The greatest task at this age is becoming more independent. That does not mean they “go it alone.” Close relationships with trusted adults are the key to stability and learning how to live and manage life on their own. The key is listening and communication! In the next column, we will discuss some specific tips for parents of teens. Happy parenting until then!

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