Get inside the mind of a teen
There's been growing interest in the study of neuroscience over several decades and there is no doubt that some knowledge of the brain and how it develops can be useful in understanding more about human behaviour; we include some introductory information for most of our clients as part of building self-awareness.
Yet even though we are now more aware than ever of the workings of the brain, we can still find ourselves baffled by someone's behaviour, particularly when it seems out of character. And there is probably no more baffling time than adolescence.
The emotional part of the brain (the limbic system) is essentially fully developed by the age of 13/14, about the same time as huge hormonal shifts are taking place.
Meanwhile, the part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) that up to now has been largely responsible for logical, rational thinking and reasoning is undergoing significant reconstruction. With that combination, what could possibly go wrong?!
We may find ourselves presented with a child who is developing rapidly physically and mentally, experiencing emotional highs one minute and deep emotional lows the next as a result of the combination of hormones and limbic activity and that can be challenging.
However, their access to logical, rational thinking and reasoning is limited and leads to difficulty in understanding consequences of their behaviour at a time when there is increased risk taking - a natural part of human development. It's almost like a perfect recipe for chaos and confusion.
Experiencing a big shift in an adolescent's behaviour - reduced communication, struggling at school, spending more time with friends, binge drinking, mood swings and even violence - can be puzzling and distressing to those who have nurtured and supported them.
During the reconstruction of the pre-frontal cortex, the less-used neural pathways are pruned and the frequently used ones remain and become almost hard-wired; it's an important and necessary process that prepares the brain for adulthood. Interestingly, latest research indicates that the female brain matures between 19 and 26 and, wait for it, the male brain between 25 and 32. In the meantime, many decisions will be made via the emotional brain with a focus on immediacy rather than consideration.
What can we do? It's important to remember that during this time of reconstruction, and as capable adults, we have the responsibility to guide our teens and adolescents' behaviour rather than force compliance. Sometimes that means changing our approach and encouraging them to find their own answers. They have the mental ability to do that, but they need our patience, love, support, guidance and a clear set of boundaries.
This can be difficult at a time when adolescents are often at their most unlovable and challenging (as most of us have been at the same age) and it helps to understand and be able to regulate our own emotions, frustrations and approach before we jump into reaction.
Rowena Hardy is a facilitator, performance coach and partner of Minds Aligned: mindsaligned.com.au