We talk to our kids about the physical changes that will happen in their bodies during puberty. We talk to them about how they may begin discovering attractions for the opposite or same sex. We warn them about the dangers of peer pressure and the risks of acting impulsively. We snap at them about their unwarranted emotional outbursts and tell them they need to learn to control themselves.
But how often do we talk to our tweens about the actual chemical changes happening in their brains? Why do we arm our kids with knowledge about the outward upheaval their bodies are experiencing, and even warn them about powerful emotions, but often leave out the scientific explanations for the intense feelings rushing through their minds?
Well, for me at least, it’s because I just didn’t know. My 12-year-old son Lucas, while watching “fail” videos on YouTube the other day, asked with a bewildered look on his face why teenagers, especially teenage boys, seem to do so much “stupid crap.”
I told him that, during the teenage years, a whole lot of hormones rage through a person’s body, and they cause the brain to be kind of… in conflict with itself for a bit. It can make it difficult to accurately assess risky behavior or control impulses. Lucas found this both fascinating and terrifying (“I’m not going to act like that, Mom!”) and wanted to understand the mechanism behind how it all worked.
I didn’t know much more than what I’d told him, though—I had to consult Google for more info. And, it turns out, though we have identified behaviors common during puberty and are sure that hormones play a huge role, there is still much research to be done to determine the precise mechanism for how and the degree to which hormones influence behavior. Most of our knowledge about brain-level changes comes from studies of non-human primates.
What We Know
We know that during adolescence, the brain changes more rapidly than at any other time in life, second only to infancy. During this time, the brain undergoes an increase in white matter, enhancing processing power so that the adolescent brain begins transitioning to act more like an adult’s.
We know that large parts of the brain are loaded with receptors for estrogen and testosterone, the two hormones that ramp up during puberty, the amounts of which are largely determined by biological sex. And we know that during puberty, these hormones start going wild, and the parts of the brain they affect become more active, amplifying emotional range, reasoning, critical thinking, decision-making ability, and memory.
But the interesting—and often infuriating—caveat here is that the adolescent brain is still largely under the influence of the limbic system, especially the amygdala, the part of the brain where emotion is first processed. Other parts, most notably the prefrontal cortex, the part right behind the forehead that sorts and analyzes signals from other parts of the brain and makes decisions, lag in development.
So the amygdala supplies an emotion—a strong one, because hormones—and the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex just kind of flails around while the wild emotion gets released according to whatever impulse first pops into the brain, like, say, slamming a door. Our tweens’ heads are flooded with hormones that cause very powerful emotions to arise, yet the parts needed to process those emotions and check their more destructive impulses aren’t quite all the way online yet.
Understanding Makes All The Difference
Why is it important for us to know all this—and to talk to our kids about it? These changes will happen whether we’re aware of it or not, right?
Well, a tween’s prefrontal cortex may be underdeveloped, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely useless. What adolescents need most in order to avoid acting in impulsive and destructive ways, is time. And what parents most need to do is to give their kids that time.
Our kids’ brains simply need more time than we do to process big, overwhelming emotions. They do have the tools; those tools are just immature. It’s not that they can’t make good decisions—it’s that they can’t always make them on the spot.
But giving a tween this knowledge can go a long way to helping them give themselves the necessary time to process an emotion, when, in the heat of the moment, all they want to do is scream or hit someone or something. Self-awareness is an incredibly useful tool for developing agency and autonomy. Getting in the habit of counting ten slow breaths can be the difference between punching a hole in a wall and not.
Testosterone Doesn’t Equal Aggression
Another important note: the notion that “boys will boys, because testosterone” is proving to be a fallacy. Studies have shown that the current assumed relationship between testosterone and aggression is overly simplistic. It’s not merely a question of testosterone leading to aggression. Rather, a higher level of testosterone “increases motivation to attain higher status, but the specific effects on behavior are dependent on the social and developmental context.”
In other words, if males are raised in an environment where aggression is deemed to be socially unacceptable, then aggression as a tool to achieve higher status within their social group would be rendered useless. With the right environment and proper modeling, there is no reason to take for granted that adolescent boys will be aggressive.
So, talk to your adolescent kids about what’s going on in their brains (not just their bodies). They’re smart and immensely capable. They want to do the right thing, but sometimes their brain literally gets in the way. Let’s give them tools to understand and work with what they’ve got.