The Teen Brain

The Incredible Cognitive Potential & Vulnerability of the Teenage Brain

IMG 2774 300x224 The Teen Brain   Research in the past 10- 15 years has shown that our brains continue to develop in fundamental ways through the teen years and even into the late 20s and 30s.   In fact, Jensen argues in her new book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, the teenage years comprise one of the brain’s most critical periods for development – likely every bit as crucial as early childhood. “That seven years in their life is, in a way, as important as their first seven years of life,“ Jensen says. “It is probably one of the most important seven-year periods in their entire life. “

Emerging brain development science is changing the way we view team behavior: why teens can seem so moody and disorganized, why they sometimes make such short sighted decisions and why many serious mental illnesses begin to emerge in adolescence.

New discoveries are also revealing that teen brains are far more vulnerable than we thought, revelations that are destined to give rise to a new war over how parents, teachers and society should treat teenagers – with more freedom or more rules?

Recent scientific thinking on brain development is a fundamental shift, one that is poised to make adolescence, rather than childhood, the latest battleground in the fight to make a generation of smart, healthy and independent adults.

IMG 5170 225x300 The Teen BrainThis past year has seen the release of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s best-selling book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, along with Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescents by Temple University Psychology professor Lawrence Steinberg and the updated re-release of psychologist David Walsh’s influential 2004 book on teen brains, Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen.

Among the most popular misconceptions about brain development is the idea that the most important changes happen in the first three years of life. This idea has been the source of much parental anxiety over the fear that they provide enough stimulation to their infants before their synapses are lost. Paul Howard Jones, a professor of adolescence and education at the University of Bristol believes that parents can breathe a sigh of relief and pack up baby Einstein’s toys.

IMG 4519 225x300 The Teen BrainAn improved understanding of the developing brain carries a growing acknowledgement that teenagers are uniquely susceptible to great risks. Behind the seemingly invincible teenage boy with the booming voice and adult body is a brain that is incredibly vulnerable to everything from sports related concussions to mental illness and addiction. New research is uncovering ways in which the activities that so often typify teenage years, such as experimenting with cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol, can lower teen’s IQ or increase susceptibility to mental illness later on. Chronic stress stemming from family violence, poverty or bullying has also been linked to changes in the teen brain that can raise the risk of mood disorders or learning disabilities.

Science is only beginning to understand just how crucial the teen years are to the person we ultimately become. “This is an incredible reveal of how much capacity we have that we never really realized we had at this age,” Jensen says, “but also that it has a price.”

At the heart of our understanding of brain development are two basic concepts gray matter and white matter. Gray matter consists of neurons, the brain cells that form the building blocks of the brain. White matter, are the connections that form between gray matter, helping to move information from one area of the brain to the next.

While gray matter growth is indeed almost completely finished by the age of six, white matter – the wiring between brain cells – continues to develop well into the 20s. In fact, says Jensen, “that wiring is only about 80% complete by the age of 18”.

The last area of the brain to be hooked up with white matter is the pre-frontal cortex, which controls insight, judgment, self-awareness and empathy – the brain’s so called executive functions.

Along with new wiring the brain of teen’s and young adults are also undergoing a process called myelination, in which those white matter connections are being coded in a protective fatty material. Myelin acts as a form of insulation, allowing signals to move faster between brain cells, helping to speed the flow of information in the brain. Since both the wiring to the prefrontal cortex, and the insulation, is incomplete, teens often take longer to access the prefrontal cortex is, meaning they have a harder time making judgments and controlling their impulses. The process of myelination continues into the 30s, giving rise to questions about how old someone must be to considered to have a fully developed ‘adult’ brain.

P1010006 300x225 The Teen BrainAt the same time the teens’ brains are laying down connections and insulation, puberty has triggered pituitary glands to release hormones are acting on the limbic system, the brain’s emotional center. The combination of heightened emotions and an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex explains why teens are often prone to emotional outbursts, says Jensen, and also why they seek out more emotionally charged situations, from sad movies to dangerous driving.

Hormones also appear to have a different effect in teens then they do in adults. The hormone THP, which is released by the body in response to stress, has a calming effect in adults, but actually seems to have the opposite effect in teens, increasing stress. It’s one reason why teens are prone to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s also a good reason, Jensen says, why parents and schools should be sensitive to the problem of bullying.

Along with new wiring, insulation and hormones, teens brains are highly sensitive to the release of dopamine, which plays on the areas of the brain that govern pleasure And helps explain why teens seem to take so many risks.

It’s not that they don’t know any better. In fact, reasoning abilities are largely developed by the age of 15 and studies have shown that teens are as accurate as adults when it comes to understanding if an activity is dangerous.   Their brains are just more motivated by the rewards of taking a risk than deterred by its dangers. So even if they know something might be bad – speeding, drinking too much, and trying new drugs – they get more pleasure from taking the risks anyway.

Central to our understanding of how teens learn is ‘pruning’ – a period when the brain begins to shed some of the gray matter cells built up in childhood to make room for the growth of white matter. A long period of gray matter growth in childhood, followed by vigorous pruning in adolescence has been linked to higher intelligence, Jensen says.

It’s for this reason the Jay Giedd, an expert in child and adolescent brain imaging at the US National Institute of Mental Health, describes the teen years as a special period of ‘use it or lose it’ for the brain. Brain cells grown in childhood that continue to get used in adolescence form new connections, well those that go unused wither away. It’s also another reason why parents should be anxious about what happens during the teen years – adolescents now appears to be a period that can make or break a child’s intelligence.

A significant consequence of pruning is that IQ, once thought to be fixed for life after childhood, can in fact change dramatically during the teen years.

British researchers at University College London tested the IQs of 33 teams age 12 to 16 and then retest them four years later. They found some teens IQ rose as much as 18 points, the difference between being average and being gifted. They attributed the changes to increases in grey matter in two areas of the brain that govern speech and language, as well as hand movements. In a follow-up study, the same researchers found that changes to verbal IQ were strongly linked to reading abilities in early adolescence, suggesting that changes were not simply genetic. They recommended that children with dyslexia be given audiobooks of their verbal IQs don’t deteriorate with age.

A study published last year of Swedish teenagers linked a drop in IQ between ages 13 and 18 with a higher risk of developing a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia as an adult.

Just as teens’ brain development appears to make them highly sensitive to learning new skills, science is beginning to reveal just how vulnerable teens are to learning the wrong things.

Learning is a process of repeatedly exposing the brain to something that stimulates the production of dopamine, which strengthens connections in the brain’s reward center and helps form new memories. Addiction, therefore, is simply a form of ‘overlearning’ by the brain, Jensen says. That process can be controlled by the prefrontal cortex, but since teens are so primed for learning and have less of an ability to access the prefrontal cortex, they’re also more susceptible to addictions.

What’s more, substance abuse can interfere with brain development in ways that can make teens more vulnerable to mental illness or even lower their IQ. Researchers have shown that students with higher levels of cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine, in their bodies perform worse on cognitive tests. Smoking also seems to be related to less active prefrontal cortexes in teens and appears to damage parts of the brain that produce serotonin, and lower levels of serotonin are linked to depression.

Other studies have linked smoking in teams to alcohol abuse, which itself has a devastating effect on both memory and intelligence. And it turns out smoking pot may be far worse for the team brain than previously thought. Recent studies have linked regular marijuana use and adolescents to smaller brain volume and more damage to white matter. Smoking daily before the age of 17 has been shown to reduce verbal IQ and increase the risk of depression. This can be a particular problem for teens with ADHD, who researchers have found are far more likely to abuse both cigarettes and marijuana than other teenagers.

For teens who get a thrill from binge drinking and getting high, the consequences may be dire – and possibly, permanent.

Alcohol, for instance, can affect the developing brain teen brain in myriad negative ways: causing potentially permanent damage to the hippocampus, which helps the brain form long-term memories, a critical aspect of learning. American researchers have also found that teens who start drinking before the age of 15 were four times more likely to become alcoholics later in life than those who held off until age 21.

That research comes with a warning for parents who think that as long as their teenagers drink at home under supervision, they’ll be safe from the temptation to abuse alcohol. Studies have found that the more teens a drink at home, the more they will drink elsewhere and the higher their chances are of becoming an alcoholic.

It’s not just drugs and alcohol that can cause long lasting damage to the teen brain. Chronic stress is also proving to permanently alter brain development, increasing the size of the amygdala, which governs the emotions, and reducing the size of the hippocampus. The end result may be a brain that is hardwired for anxiety, depression and learning disabilities.

As well, studies a video game addicts have shown their brains develop differently: excessive gaming appears to enlarge areas responsible for memory and visual spatial skills, but shrink areas of the brain responsible for speech, memory, emotions, and areas responsible for inhibiting impulsive behavior.

In an era marked by an ideological tug-of-war over how best to raise our teenagers, what’s a parent to do with this new science of the teenage brain? More rules? Or in intervening too much, do parents risk raising teens whose brains never learn how to become an adult?

In the Teenage Brain, Jensen puts herself squarely in the camp of the highly involved parent. She encourages parents to proof read their teen’s homework, help them make lists to prioritize their assignments, watch them as they do school work to see if they’re getting distracted and to not be afraid of ‘sounding like a broken record’ by reminding teens over and over again about the dangers that could befall them.

She encourages parents to ‘be your teens frontal lobe’s’ and to ‘try to think for your teenage sons and daughters until their own brains are ready to take over the job’. Jensen argues that it is a parents’ job to protect their teens from their own often short-sighted behavior, while allowing them enough room for ”safe failures”.

“Your kid doesn’t see the fact that if they fail all of their classes in the 11th grade they won’t be going to the kind of colleges they want to go to, or go to college at all”, she says. “That’s why you’re a parent. That’s why they ‘re not off living by themselves. There is a point at which I think you have a moral responsibility to intervene”.

In the quagmire of parental advice, it’s no surprise that the counter argument to the neuroscience approach to parenting is robust, and passionate. Psychologist Robert Epstein, author of the Case Against Adolescents: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, believes that adolescent rebellion has little to do with brain development and lots to do with how society treats teenagers. He argues scientists have it backward: teens don’t act out because they have immature brains struggling to navigate an adult world, but because they have adult brains railing against a society that treats them like children.

“Put yourself in their shoes”, says Epstein. “Why they’re stealing your stuff and why their room is a mess is because they have very limited ways in which they can demonstrate their power and their independence and some of them will demonstrate it in destructive in self-destructive ways”.

Epstein has six children, including two teens and two adult children. He began changing his views on teen behavior when he caught his second oldest son, Justin, then 14, stealing his truck. Epstein hauled him down to the police station to scare him straight. “But inside my head I realize: wait a minute, he’s never gotten into an accident, he’s never got a ticket, obviously he knows how to drive”, he says. Why isn’t he allowed to drive? He now parents his middle children differently than he did his eldest, leaving most of the decisions, from whether they’re allowed to have dessert, to what courses they should take in school, entirely up to them. I tell them “you decide”, two words he says have completely transformed his relationship with his teenagers. His 16-year-old son now comes home from school and immediately starts doing chores without being asked.

Jensen agrees that the age limits society has placed on adolescents regarding the ability to drive, join the military, vote or drink alcohol have little to do with brain development science and are entirely random. She believes that we have to understand what teens are developmentally capable of, and gradually introduce things in steps.

Other research is challenging the notion that teens have a less mature and less connected prefrontal cortex and are therefore inherently more impulsive than adults.

At Temple University, Steinberg has used a car racing video game to show that when teens are alone they perform as well as adults on tasks involving a trade off of risk and reward. But when other teens are in the room watching, adolescents tend to make far riskier decisions. Adults show no difference if other adults watch them, suggesting that teen risk taking is likely social.

B.J Casey, Cornell University, found that teens could be less impulsive if they were offered rewards. The greater the reward, the longer teens took to make a decision, suggesting that parents trying to control a hot headed teen might want to offer rewards for good decisions rather than punishing bad ones.

According to Jensen and others, we could get so much more out of our teenagers – and who they become later in life, in many cases – If we took a different approach to this critical window of time.

Tamsin McMahon (Jan. 12, 2015)

Homework Struggles?

3WtyNdU Imgur 300x200 Homework Struggles?Success is a team sport, with students and parents both taking an active role.  Sometimes though, homework makes parents and their student feel like they are members of rival teams!

Homework doesn’t have to be a game with winners and losers. Identifying specific struggles that a student might have with homework is a great first step to teaming up for success.

As with any good team, it really helps to understand what motivates your teammate. Understanding how your teen approaches homework might be the best clue as to how to encourage them and draw out their best performance. At Shelterwood, we have found that teens typically fall into four very different approaches.

The Motivated Student: This student has an internal drive to achieve, and independently pursues academic excellence. Resourcing this student with time, space to make decisions, and regular encouragement can help him maximize his full potential.

The Motivated, Accommodated Student: This student wants to do well, but may have struggles in one or more subjects. She receives help in school, and is striving to achieve even with limitations. We have found that frequently reminding this student of the full arc of her improvements can be very helpful. It is important not to do this in an empty vague way, but to instead truly celebrate success with real specific affirmations and rewards. If this student falls into the trap of simply looking at day-to-day successes and failures, goals become may become foggy, frustration will set in and progress often becomes stalled. Tutoring and peer study groups are often a valuable resource for this student as she struggles to maintain motivation for difficult subjects.

The Procrastinating Student: This struggle might be the most confusing to parents and often creates a tremendous amount of frustration within the family. When students wait until the last second to do projects and daily work, it is often difficult to determine when they are falling behind until progress reports are sent home. This student is his own worst enemy, and though he may not struggle with the material, he digs himself into a hole. Issues arise when parents aren’t aware that their student has been procrastinating until the last minute, and this erodes trust. Asking the student homework related questions daily, communicating with teachers, and helping with scheduling assists this student greatly. But be careful with oversight; it is easy to fall into the trap of taking on too much. Instead of allowing the teen to defer responsibility, begin to discuss the fear that is behind the procrastination. Often the desire to see a teen maximize his abilities hinders parents’ ability to see procrastination as anything beyond laziness, falsely believing that his effort and ability to complete assignments is completely under his control. Instead, these parents need to open their hearts to the idea that maybe fear and self-doubt, not laziness, might be paralyzing his progress.

The Combative/Resisting Student: At Shelterwood, we have found that students that have become agitated and upset by the very mention of homework are often troubled by a deeper dynamic. There are many possible reasons that a student is combative when it comes to homework: struggles with content, frustration over lack of study skills, power struggles, undiagnosed learning disabilities, emotional struggles. Instead of engaging in the battle, empathy and loving engagement is really the only solution for parents. Setting aside the homework and focusing on the individual will help parents get to the bottom of things and eventually help their teen. Professional assessment may be needed to see if there are diagnosable issues at play. Resistant angry teens can be a real challenge and often push parents into expressing their own anger. The tension might dissipate if the parents can distance themselves from their teen, but it might leave them feeling like victims and walled up in their own homes. It is always better to not take a teen’s opposition personally, but to instead recognize that the teen is actually in a critical place and in desperate need of help.

Homework doesn’t have to be a battle, and parents can take control of the situation by knowing where their student’s strengths and weaknesses are, what their motivations are, and how to best communicate with them. Like a cruise liner, it takes time to steer the ship in a different direction, but take heart. It is doable!

Chad Smith

Academic Dean, Shelterwood

Snow Plow Parenting

super mom med 300x199 Snow Plow ParentingThere is a new buzzword in parenting circles today…the ‘snow plow parent.’ These well intentioned moms and dads are closely related to their twins, the helicopters. Just like a snowplow, they go ahead of their kids and move any obstacles out the way so that the kids have a smooth path in which to move forward. The problem, as you can guess, is that it robs kids of the sense of accomplishment and value they receive from solving problems, learning to handle loss and forging their own paths.

As a parent who ‘snowplows’ at times, I can tell you that the tricky part is when your child battles with depression, anxiety, a learning disability, a physical limitation or handles stress by turning to substances. As a parent of a struggling teen, I naturally want to minimize obstacles out of fear that if our child struggles, he might turn even more towards his dangerous coping behavior and his problems will only deepen. This cycle of rescuing in order to protect our children from themselves can feel like a death spiral.  And I know I am not alone because many parents call each day, sharing a similar story of feeling out of control and seeing that their teen is “spiraling out of control.” It is so enticing for us as parents to get overly involved in the situation when we feel like our child is behaving out of control. Most parents have a hard time sitting back and watching their kids work through adversity on their own, but it’s often the only way for children to learn to trust themselves and gain the confidence needed to navigate through adolescence and adulthood. If we remove the obstacles for them, they feel paralyzed to handle any hardships that will inevitably come once they leave home.

Could it be that our attempts to help our kids have perhaps caused some of those issues in the first place because we have unwittingly given them the message that they are not capable people and must have our help with everything? There is no guilt here…our children know that we have good intentions. They do. But I have come to recognize my own need to show my kids that I trust them to be capable, strong, and creative in their problem solving. Even when I see them struggling and using dangerous coping mechanisms such as cutting, drugs, sex, etc., I am called to let go. My role as a parent is not to drive the snowplow but to simply pick up a shovel and work alongside my teen.


Call us and learn more about Snow Plow Parenting
800 584 5005

How to find Success in School

Three things parents can do in January for a better May

student computer 300x205 How to find Success in SchoolJanuary spells the beginning of a new semester for most teens, but maybe things didn’t turn out so well the previous term. Now is the time to plan for success in school.

Too often kids who struggle or perform poorly in school are victims of their own poor habits. January is a great time to set them up for successfully completing the school year that is coming in May! Here are a few things parents can do to help:

1. Get to know the lay of the land. A new semester means a new schedule and perhaps a couple of new teachers. Contact the teachers to introduce yourself and ask questions like: (take out all dashes here and in between the questions) How much time per week can he expect to spend on homework for your course? Are there any large projects coming up during the semester?  How often do you update your grades online? Then sit down with your student and discuss what you find out!

2. Chart a course. Sunday evening, sit down with your student to discuss school. Talk to your teen about the weekly family schedule including the sports and activities done during the week, and the expected homework load. For example, if you expect that your student is going to average one hour of homework per night, when will that hour happen on Tuesday night? Figuring this out will help both of you start healthy time management patterns.

3. Celebrate positive results and make a game plan for those times when you miss the target. You may find out during your Sunday evening sit-down that an Algebra test is coming up on Wednesday. Bring this up in conversation Monday and Tuesday nights, and then ask how he did on Wednesday. This engagement brings accountability, both to your teen and to you as the parent. Celebrate success! If your student did well, praise him! If the test didn’t go so well, process what went wrong.  Challenge your child to speak with his teacher and ask follow up questions, and then encourage him to commit to improvement. The key is to show your teen the skill-set of owning his success so he can take the guidance you give him and begin to apply it without your help.

Communication is key.  Parents who discuss goals, material from class, and time management with their teens will give struggling students more confidence in the classroom. These conversations are more effective when they start in January, instead of in early May when it’s too late.

Chad Smith

Academic Dean

Find out why you parent like your parents

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win” -1 Cor. 9:24

Muscle memory is the ability of our muscles to remember. When a movement is repeated over time, muscle memory is created for that task allowing it to be repeated without conscious effort. It’s a great thing for athletics and has led to the concept of “practice” where we repeat a certain activity so as to be repeated come game time. That’s what the coach so eloquently meant when he said (or yelled), “we’re going to keep running that play ‘till you knuckle-heads get it right!” We learn early as athletes to be focused, intense and competitive. That works well for sports but sometimes not so well in parenting.

245 200x300 Find out why you parent like your parentsYears ago, some friends asked me to come play soccer with them. There was a group of adults and teens that played soccer every Sunday afternoon at the local park. Lots of fun, but the competitive soccer world is not “fun.” Soccer is a super competitive, intense sport with no time outs, few goals, and no pads (unless you count shin guards, which weren’t required when I played). I was hesitant to go play. I’d played for so many years and it just seemed odd to go, though I’m not sure why. But I decided to play. It really was fun, until the second half. One of the teenagers on the other team was making a run down the field and my “muscle memory” kicked in. I ran him down and made a good “legal” tackle to prevent a goal. But I did not prevent embarrassment. The teen was ticked and, once I came out of my intense daze, I must have apologized a million times. I should not have made that hard play on him. This was just a fun game. But something “unconscious” kicked in. I, in essence, lost control and a billion hours of practice kicked in.

Muscle memory in parenting is a combination of past experience, including how we were raised by our parents and of how we parent day-to-day. How often do you catch yourself reacting the same way your parents reacted towards you? And you swore you wouldn’t be like your parents!

Parenting really can be fun. It doesn’t have to be a super intense exercise of winning at all costs. It seems to be about perspective. Your son calls and has a flat tire north of town. He needs your help. You have a choice. You could get grouchy and frustrated, drive to where he is, and be impatient and irritable because your dad was like that. The world is like that. After all, you’re missing your favorite show on the Weather Channel! Or, you can say a quick prayer, take a deep breath and take this as an opportunity to love your son.

Be sure you’re repeating those attitudes and values in your life that are worth repeating. Silver Dollar City in Branson has, as it’s mission statement, “we are creating memories worth repeating.” Make that your motto as a parent, to create a parenting style worth repeating. Certainly, model all the wonderful ways your parents raised you, but be willing to break the mold in weak areas.

Pray for open eyes and an open heart to needed change and improvement in parenting. It doesn’t have to be as intense as a soccer match. There are time outs and the victory is a growing relationship with your son or daughter. It’s not always easy, but the muscle memory of loving is always the best goal.