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The Amazing Teenage Brain!

Do teens get a bad rap? Here are some recent examples of some adult views on teenagers:

--"Drama, drama, drama!"

--My kid can't wait for anything, it all has to be right now"

--Too many risks, too little thought"

--What happened to academic motivation?"

While  these concerns are felt by many parents, I am hopeful to present a little of what I learned at a November 2019 NAN conference in San Diego that reminded me that yes, these are challenges all parents face, but this is also a normative phase of life that all teens (ourselves, once upon a time) must go through to mature into adulthood. 

Citing the work for Dr. Jay Geidd, adolescence is a time of transition. Yes, there will be increased conflict, mood volatility and risky behaviors. There will also be physical changes, some visible and some invisible, particularly in the brain. This is a time of brain optimization, to promote adaptation as well as personal evolution. Dr. Geidd talked about three key themes occurring the brain that is allowing your teen to thrive:

Pruning

There is a natural process of pruning or elimination of cells occurring during this time frame to allow for greater optimization of relevant brain matter.

Increased Connectivity

Cognitive changes and advances during adolescence stem from faster communication in brain circuitry and increased integration of brain activity. 

Changing Frontal-Limbic Balance

The balance between the limbic system (primal emotions) and frontal lobe networks is occurring. Executive functions begin to come online and mediate emotions as well as engage in planning and consequential thinking. Keep in mind that high level integration and maturation of the frontal lobe do not fully mature until the mid 20s.

Teen Brains Require Nurturance:

  1. Be Warm and Supportive. Home environments have a strong impact on teens’ health and well-being. When parents give kids a loving environment and plenty of support, it promotes their physical and mental health, positive behavior and healthy brain development.
  2. Provide New Experiences. Teen brains are open to taking in lots of new information. Offer teens plenty of opportunities to learn about diverse subjects (e.g. art, music, technology, travel). This may unlock new ways of thinking about and understanding the world.
  3. Encourage Good Sleep Habits. Rest/Sleep is one of the things that allows teens’ minds and bodies to recover and grow. Parents must help them balance demands from school, work, peers, and extracurricular activities so they can get enough sleep. Regulate electronic use before bed. Help them learn that a relaxed mind more easily drifts to sleep.
  4. Promote Exercise. Being physically active is central to health. It doesn’t have to be an organized sport. Invite your teens on a walk, to participate in a yoga class, shoot hoops, or ride bikes. Encourage them to find an exercise they can do on their own throughout their lives. Examples include biking, running, hiking, and swimming.
  5. Offer Healthy Foods. Nutrition is important for teen brain development. Ensure their diets include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and fish. Healthy eating is also known to reduce diabetes, obesity, and heart conditions
  6. Reduce Stress Levels. Stress impacts the ability to think clearly and puts a strain on the mind and body.  We can’t protect our children from all stress. But we can encourage them to take care of themselves and offer them plenty of love and support. We can also provide them with coping strategies so that they learn how to manage the stress.
  7. Protect from Harm. It is important that teens understand why parents are against drugs, vaping, & alcohol. We want to keep them safe and poised to make responsible decisions. It’s also because we know these substances can be particularly harmful to the developing brain. Teens must also know we are each given only one brain and we must protect it from self-injury. 

In a nutshell, the brain is undergoing a myriad of changes during adolescence that may manifest behaviorally in: moodiness, changes in sleep and appetite, and testing the limits with parents. Try to exhibit patience with your teen by remembering that the brain is "fine tuning." This incredible change is distinctive only to humans and makes adolescence a time of opportunity. 

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