Last time I wrote to you about the physical changes which occur during puberty, and now I’ll address the mental changes. Much of the behavior parents chalk up to “hormones” is actually a result of how the brain is developing. Although many parents dread the behavioral changes, puberty doesn’t have to drive a wedge between you and your child.
The brain is composed of hundreds of billions of neurons, and during puberty many of these neurons are pruned away. Meaning, if your child hasn’t been learning a language or practicing an instrument, those unused nerve cells die back. At the same time, the active neurons develop closer connections. These closer connections result in greater creativity, logic, and reasoning. Their ability to handle abstract concepts dramatically improves.
Part of understanding abstraction results in adolescents become increasingly sensitive to social dynamics. In one study, levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) were measured as girls and boys of various ages performed a simple task under supervision. The 11-year olds’ cortisol levels decreased, as did the levels of the 13 year old boys. The 13 year old girls, however, showed a dramatic spike in their cortisol levels. The results show that adolescent girls are particularly sensitive to social situations and hardwired to stress over how others perceive them. This makes evolutionary sense: In traditional societies, adolescent girls are learning how to attune to their first child, how to parent, and how to survive. The stakes are high and these skills can best be learned from others, so she is instinctively incentivized to maintain strong bonds.
Emotionally, adolescents experience higher highs and lower lows than any other time in life. A study compared teens to adults and found that teens experience a greater drop in mood and greater anxiety when excluded from a group. This accounts for teens’ willingness to join gangs or cliques, their willingness to engage in bullying and other bad behaviors due to peer pressure, and their self-destructive reactions to being bullied. In a study on rewards, levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (a pleasure signal) were compared. Children and adults had similar dopamine levels, while the adolescents experienced much higher levels of pleasure. Teens’ emotions reward them more and punish them more, so don’t be surprised by a reaction which feels out of proportion.
The higher highs and lower lows strongly shape a teen’s behavior. Your teen will go to dramatic lengths to avoid social exclusion, because it feels so bad to them. Conversely, winning the high regard of their peers is intensely rewarding, and this may account for teens’ more risky behavior. Studies show that boys especially engage in more risk-taking behavior between the ages of 10 and 18. In a study comparing adolescents’ choices when driving alone or with peers, it was found that they make many more risky decisions when with peers. A follow up study found that they made many fewer risky decisions with their mothers present. Parental supervision matters!
Though the emotional centers of the brain are more active, the performance of the brain’s control center actually decreases, because different parts of the brain are developing at different rates. Kids 10-11 years old are the most emotionally aroused, and they have the least self-regulation. Studies show that adolescents have less ability to plan ahead and anticipate consequences than when they were a bit younger. Parents, please understand that this is a developmental stage. They can’t help it. Of course it’s frustrating, but you can be prepared for it. Don’t expect your child to have these skills; instead, allow your child to make low-stakes decisions so he or she can gain practice planning ahead and anticipating consequences.
In the journey toward becoming and adult, adolescents have a great need for autonomy. Though they may say they don’t want you involved, this tends to be posturing for peers or autonomy, not a true preference. According to the Society for Research on Adolescence, “Adolescents…are more satisfied with their life when their parents are involved.” Don’t take it personally. They do need you and they do want you involved in their lives. Yes, provide as much autonomy as possible, but also provide as much connection as possible. Don’t throw up your hands and give in when your kid says you’re ruining their life. You’re not. Stay involved. Show that you are there for them in as many ways as you can.
These brain changes often lead to greater conflict between parent and child, but they don’t have to. The increase in creativity and reasoning might present itself as endless negotiation, but expect that. If you hold firmly to your boundaries and rules, your child will internalize your values.
So now that you have the benefit of science, what should you do? Follow these guidelines:
- Expect your daughter to be highly sensitive to social situations. Tread lightly.
- Teens have higher highs and lower lows, so don’t be surprised if they seem to overreact.
- Help your child win positive social regard and avoid social exclusion. Support your child in areas of talent or passion which his or her peers will find “cool.” Ensure your child has several circles of friends. If things suddenly go badly with the kids at school, you want your child to have other friends to lean on.
- Support your child in his or her need for autonomy, but provide supervision when he or she is with peers. Help them learn grown-up skills, but minimize their opportunities for risk-taking behavior. You might even consider supervised risky behaviors, like a family snowboarding trip, to allow your teen’s need for risk-taking to be satisfied.
- Find ways to show your teen how much you care. Expect him or her to push you away and don’t take it personally. Show your child that the connection between you two is solid and stable. Stay involved.
- Be firm in setting boundaries and rules. Explain why those boundaries or rules are important to you.
Having worked in high schools for over a decade, I know how prickly and how wonderful teens can be. Understanding what is happening in their brains can make it much easier for you to keep your sanity and maintain a good relationship with them. If you’re already in the thick of it and not sure how to navigate, please let me help! Email me a bit about the situation so that I can give you some strategies.
In support of you,