Why teens change
It’s the brain more than the hormones
WRITTEN BY TERRY BULLICK AND FRANK MacMASTERPHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHAEL INTERISANO
One day, roughly 12 to 16 years afteryour child is born, you may wake upand wonder: Who is this person?
The child you knew is suddenlydifferent. Much different. She cansolve complex math problems. Engagein debates, enjoy arguments. Deliversarcasm, deploy metaphors and drawupon irony. She may be profoundlyconcerned about global warming, socialinjustice, clean water for developingnations and the latest craze for short-shorts. She is a full-fledged teen.
Hormones have long been thoughtto be behind many of the emotionalchanges in teens, but research is findingchanges in the brain’s structure andfunction play even bigger roles. And it’sgiving us much more insight into how tohelp teens become adults.
Some of the most intensive braindevelopment in teens takes place inthe front third of the brain: the frontalcortex. This is a big player in everythingthat makes you a good person, a goodcitizen. It’s the boss of the brain andwhere executive function lives. And it’sone of the last parts of the brain to fullydevelop.
Just as an air traffic control tower
makes it possible for many planes to
come and go from an airport without
crashing, executive function gives us
the ability to remember, focus, plan
and respond the right way in different
situations. For teens, these include
paying attention in class, figuring out
how to solve problems (at school and
in life), staying focused during an exam
and controlling emotions.
Building executive function skillsbegins in early childhood, takes a bigleap in adolescence and youth andcontinues well into adulthood.
“Your brain continues to be formeduntil you are about 30 years old.Women’s brains are done developingaround their late 20s, or at 30. Men’sbrains are done developing at leastfive years later, so we are looking atage 35, maybe even as late as age 40.There is still some debate how long ittakes for the male brain to develop,”said Robbin Gibb, associate professor inthe Department of Neuroscience at theUniversity of Lethbridge and researcherat the Canadian Centre for BehaviouralNeuroscience, at an Apple Talks forumin 2014.
The developing frontal cortex is alsocredited with risk-taking; teens do nothave the ability to judge the severity andconsequences of risks. It’s important tohelp teens understand how to take smartrisks, such as wearing a helmet whilemountain biking or skateboarding.
Another part of the teen brain alsoin high gear is the nucleus accumbens.It’s tiny (about the size of a Skittle) andlocated about midway between theearlobes. This is the reward centre of thebrain and its development is crucial tobecoming a fully functioning adult. Thedevelopmental task here: regulation.
The teen years are an incredible timeof change and the changes can happenwith bullet-train speed. This makes ithard on teens themselves, as well astheir parents, families, teachers andothers in their lives.
Sure, teens can be cranky and moody.And when they are, it’s an opportunityto help them understand their emotionsand teach them ways they can regulatethem. Role modelling is important, buttalking and listening to them is essential;it’s serve and return for teens. It’s notalways easy—but it is always worthlearning why your teen is sad, mad orinexplicably indifferent.
You want to give your teen a chanceto deal with the obstacles life throwsthem. They need to tackle their ownchallenges, such as taking a driver’s test,asking someone to prom or getting a firstjob. Some goal-setting and boundaries(such as trying to make the volleyballteam and being home by midnight)will also help your teen be prepared foradulthood. And as her brain developsand she becomes an adult, you’re sure torecognize her again. |a
Frank MacMaster is an associateprofessor in the departments ofpsychiatry and pediatrics at theCumming School of Medicine at theUniversity of Calgary. He focuses onthe effects of early childhood trauma onbrain development and lifelong mentalhealth.