Recent discoveries from neuroscience are now showing that from about age 12-24, there is huge burst of growth and maturity of body and brain of human beings. It is a period of great learning, exploration, thinking, and decision-making as well as of frustration, confusion, risky behaviors and turmoil. The new findings show that the brain develops from the lower limbic brain to the top, pre-frontal cortex (PFC). In essence, our emotional brain develops before the “executive” brain. However, the journey that s/he must navigate is filled with both opportunities and dangers. An important point to note is that the recent findings from the science of adolescent brain are overturning decades of established theories in science itself.
Negative patterns of emotions and behaviors that parents (including myself) struggle with are the ones I will start with. Because the limbic/emotional brain is better developed than the pre-frontal executive brain (analysis, weigh pros/cons, more rational decision-making, planning, regulation of emotions and impulses, self-awareness), youth have great difficulty controlling their emotions and are often hijacked by them into taking actions that have negative consequences. In other words, emotions control their behavior so strongly they do not even have time to think and reflect.
Another negative pattern is that adolescents tend to push the boundaries, without taking into account the risks or negative consequences of their actions. They tend to believe “I am invincible” or nothing will happen to me. They will experiment, even engage in risky behaviors as long it brings them pleasure, or excitement or thrills but their PFC cannot register the risks involved. Their brains are more attuned to pleasure and reward than the adult brain. So, unsafe sex, binge drinking of alcohol, getting high on drugs are some of the common risky behaviors that as parents, we are frustrated or upset by. Even music and video games can provide them with the rewards/pleasure that attract them. In the West, teens represent the largest percentage of alcohol related accidents, suicides and self-harming behavior.
As parents, we struggle in communicating with teenagers partly because they're not necessarily hearing what we say, or frustrated by how poorly they plan their activities, or get upset because they cannot control their anger. In many ways, their PFC brain is not fully developed to deal effectively with these challenges of adolescence. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the adolescent brain also has positive patterns. It is not all doom and gloom----and as parents or teachers, we can help “train” their brains and minds to strengthen their positive patterns and reduce their negative patterns. You see, the new finding in science is that the “brain” is plastic, is malleable, can change and is not fixed as once believed. The theory of neuroplasticity, to me, is a very exciting one for educators.
Young brains are curious, unafraid to ask questions, eager to explore new world and try out new things. All adults could learn from them in this regard. Some scientists believe that pushing boundaries, becoming independent from adults/parents to navigate their own journeys seems to be built into our genes, and our brains. They push the envelope of traditional ways, go outside the box, so to speak and sometimes will create innovations and new ways of doing things.
An important dimension of adolescents is forming friendships and building social relationships outside the home. Trust, support, understanding, intimacy, integrity, reliability, self-disclosure and so on are all aspects of building friendships, and young people learn and grow from these experiences. Peer pressure and peer support are part of this world. Teens are very sensitive to praise and rejection; often do what peers want them to do, rather than what adults might say is rational. This is one of the most challenging but life-shaping aspect of growing up as an adolescent.
During adolescence, the young have a lot of emotional energy and passion. Once their hearts and minds connect, they will commit their energy wholeheartedly. Of course, adults can also capture their minds to channel their energies into harmful or destructive actions, such as burning down their own library or school. As adults, how do we capture their hearts and minds?
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Neuroplasticity means that teens can learn to train their brains and pick up real skills in self-awareness of their emotions and effect on others; in self-management to control their impulses; in relationship management to become more attuned to other’s feelings and thinking, more empathy, to listen more appreciatively, support other people, more kindness and compassion; and finally, in more responsible decision making in all aspects of their lives. The practice of mindfulness really improves the above skills.
New research finding is showing that educating the young in a set of social and emotional skills (SEL) brings real positive changes in their lives, and builds real skills as they enter adulthood. In fact, the research is clearly telling us that by increasing self-awareness and social awareness, we strengthen the PFC – which in turn plays a strong role in regulating our emotions and reactions. According to the two experts below, learning self-regulation is probably the most important skills for adolescents. The PFC is also involved in finding a better balance between our inner life and our life. By inner life, I am referring to our thoughts, feelings/emotions, perceptions, memories, sensations, intentions, dreams, hopes, beliefs, desires, attitudes, and such. Our brains play a critical role in creating habitual or automatic patterns of thinking, reacting, and behaving – and by focusing our attention and intentions with our mind, we can influence the brain to function in a more integrated manner.
In my view, if we, as parents and teachers along with adolescents themselves study and better understand the nature of the changes taking place in the teen brains, we could work together to help adolescents construct a healthier and happier life. Social and emotional skills training is what we must begin with in schools and colleges. It does not require a new educational policy, or new curriculum or even any formal tests.
The age of opportunity by Laurence Steinberger (Professor of psychology at Temple U).
Brainstorm – the power and purpose of teenage brain – Dan Siegal (Professor at UCLA, school of medicine)
Ravi Pradhan is
the founder of Karuna Management and has over two decades of experience
as an international consultant and trainer in management and
organizational effectiveness. His current focus is on change management
and leadership as well as on introducing mindfulness based emotional
intelligence. He lives in Nepal and Vietnam where he is working on a
Other articles by same author: