There were many things about the teen years that I fully expected and readily anticipated: attitudes, eye-rolls, empty refrigerators, and 18-hour sleep sessions.
And while all those things certainly happened in frequent abundance, what I didn’t anticipate were the sweeping and shocking changes that took place in my once level-headed child’s brain. There were entire years between ages 13–19 in which I felt like someone had seized my teenager’s brain and replaced it with one that not only forgot how to process and complete even the simplest of tasks (taking a shower?) but one which seemed to do the complete opposite of everything I had raised it to do.
In reality, this new teen brain was a real pain in the ass, and as I struggled to understand what was really happening between the ears, I knew it had to be more than the just “hormones” that brought on this stage and its accompanying behavior. And according to the latest neurological research on the the adolescent brain (which actually spans the ages of 12–24), I was right.
We know the basic biology, which always has taught us that the frontal lobes (or prefrontal lobe) of a teenager’s brain is not fully developed and will not complete maturation until around age 25. For this reason, scientists explain the fact that, “Fifteen-year-olds have not yet fully developed the ability to understand the consequences of their actions and act accordingly. They have difficulty with planning and organization, and learning from their mistakes. They often act impulsively or inappropriately, they have roller-coaster emotions, and working towards distant goals rather than being unduly influenced by immediate rewards is a stretch for them.”
Parents and doctors have long been satisfied with that fact and have been told to just wait it out. But new research contends that what we are seeing in a teenager’s brain (and their oft-incomprehensible behaviors) isn’t simply because of a maturation process of the brain. Rather, it is now believed to be a “vital and necessary part of our individual and our collective lives. Adolescence is not a stage to simply get over; it is a stage of life to cultivate well.”
Cultivate well? Ask any parent of a teen how this stressful time of parenting is meant to be cultivated well, and they will probably reply that cultivation like that requires the patience of a damn saint — and a really good vice (copious amounts of wine, coffee, chocolate).
But when we know what is actually taking place in the brain during these years, and why it needs to take place, it can help relieve the high levels of doubt and anxiety parents of teenagers experience, due to the misconceptions of both what is happening and why it’s necessary. Some of the teen brain myths that science has debunked include:
1. Hormones are the reason for all the new and irregular behaviors.
While hormones play a large part in physical and emotional changes, it’s actually the maturation process of the brain that is linked to these behaviors.
2. Their immature, nonsensical behavior doesn’t need to happen.
Well, in a word, yes, it does. It’s now believed that when teens do things like push the limits and engage in unfamiliar behavior, their brains are “lay[ing] the stage for the development of core character traits that will enable adolescents to go on to lead great lives of adventure and purpose.” So we, obviously, don’t have to let them get away with everything for the sake of “development,” but it helps to understand the process behind their behavior.
3. All the risky behaviors they engage in as teens is not a bad thing.
We all know teenagers seek out thrilling and risky acts, acting more on impulse than experience. But it is exactly those experiences in the brain that lay the foundation for what science calls an adulthood with “a fascination for life and a drive to design new ways of doing things and living with a sense of adventure.”
When we are acutely aware that the physiological changes happening to our teenagers’ brains are reflections of natural and normal brain development, it helps us to relax a little and be less hesitant to think something is wrong or malfunctioning. Be comforted in knowing all the angst your teen is giving you is actually a great thing and will one day produce one amazing adult. One that you can proudly say you raised.