Our Senior School chaplain Mrs Rachel Thyer has put together a blog post to help parents and teens understand the developmental stages our brains go through. The blog post is part of a student well-being blog published twice a term.
Teen Brain 101
- By Mrs Rachel Thyer, Senior School Chaplain
Recently, I have been researching the human brain and some of the developmental stages our brains go through. Of particular interest were the developments that occur during adolescence and how that is displayed in the lives of our teenagers. According to research, the human brain is not fully developed until about the age of 24. While children undergo great milestones in their development during the early years, a person’s learning capacity is at its greatest during the ages of 12-24. Teens’ actions and reactions that might be confusing at times, suddenly are put into context when we recognise the changes occurring in their brains.
Here are three pieces of information for teens and parents that I found interesting:
1. What’s happening in that brain of yours?
While hormones are often blamed for many of the behaviours we see in adolescence, this is not the only area of development and imbalance for teens. The part of the brain to develop first during adolescence is the Amygdala. The Amygdala is involved in instinctive, impulsive & emotional reactions. The Pre-frontal Cortex is important for making rational or complex decisions, logic and considering consequences. This is the area that develops last. The result of a more developed Amygdala and still-developing Pre-frontal Cortex is an increase in risk-taking with limited rational decision-making abilities.
This enthusiasm, passion and risk-taking behaviour in teens can be a wonderful thing. Trying new things like sports, meeting new people or performing in front of a crowd can be great avenues to experience ‘risk’ in a healthy way that develops skills and character. Other risk-taking behaviours can be more harmful, especially when considering consequences is difficult. Conversations about healthy and unhealthy risks and how to tell the difference can be helpful in equipping teens to be able to make good decisions.
2. Use it or Lose it
Although the adolescent brain is fully developed in size, throughout the teen years, used connections within the brain are forming and being strengthened, while other unused connections are being ‘pruned’ away. This process continues throughout life but is most prevalent during the developmental years of adolescence. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. While the brain is undergoing these significant developments and changes, teens have enormous capacity to influence those changes both positively and negatively through the activities they engage in.
Maybe you’ve had the problem of trying to wake a sleeping teen in the morning to get ready for school and felt like you’d have more success awakening a rock. Melatonin is the hormone our bodies release to make us sleepy. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing Melatonin until around 11pm at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise, which can make things difficult if the school bus arrives at 7:30am. Good sleep is important for memory, supporting our immune systems and for general well-being; and there are steps that can be taken to encourage good sleep. Regular exercise, having a regular routine and a bedtime at a decent hour can assist in helping people fall to sleep. The blue light from phones and other devices delays the release of Melatonin to our brains and keeps us awake longer. Switching off devices half an hour before bed and doing something else like reading can have great benefits for sleep.
I have spoken to many teens over the years who say they experience disturbed sleep from feeling the need to check their phones even during the night. Some experience stress that they will miss out on a message or conversation or let a friend down by not replying promptly to a message that may come through during the night. I often encourage teens to leave their phones out of their rooms at night and to let their friends know they won’t be available to respond after a certain time.
Our minds are amazing things and it’s exciting to see our teens grow and develop. Although the above information does not provide an excuse for behaviour and choices, it can provide an explanation and greater understanding of factors that affect adolescents. It can equip us to better support our teens, as well as equip them to better understand some of their experiences.
Our teens have so many great qualities and exciting potential. It is a great responsibility and privilege to support them during these years!
Mrs Rachel Thyer
Senior School Chaplain