everything that makes you a good
person, a good citizen. It’s the boss
of the brain and where executive
function lives. And it’s one of the last
parts of the brain to fully develop.
Just as 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
Building executive function skills
begins in early childhood, takes a big
leap in adolescence and youth and
continues well into adulthood.
“Your brain continues to be formed
until you are about 30 years old.
Women’s brains are done developing
around their late 20’s, or at 30. Men’s
brains are done developing at least
five years later, so we are looking
40. There is still some debate how
long it takes for the male brain to
develop,” said Dr. Robbin Gibb, PhD,
a neuroscientist at the University of
Lethbridge, at an Apple Talk in June.
The developing frontal cortex is
also credited with risk-taking; teens
do not have the ability to judge
the severity and consequences of
risks. It’s important to help teens
understand how to take smart risks,
such as wearing a helmet while
mountain biking or skateboarding.
Another part of the teen brain
also in high gear is the nucleus
accumbens. It’s tiny (about the size of
a Skittle) and located about midway
between the earlobes. This is the
reward centre of the brain and its
development is crucial to becoming
a fully functioning adult. The
developmental task here: regulation.
The teen years are an incredible
time of change and the changes can
happen with bullet-train speed. This
makes it hard on teens themselves
as well as their parents, families,
teachers and others in their lives.
Sure teens can be cranky and
moody. And when they are it’s an
opportunity to help them understand
their emotions and teach them
The teen years are an incredible time
of change and the changes can happen
with bullet-train speed.
ways they can regulate them. Role
modelling is important but talking
and listening to them is essential;
it’s serve and return for teens. It’s
not always easy—it is always worth
learning why your teen is sad, mad or
You want to give your teen a
chance to deal with the obstacles life
throws them. They need to tackle
their own challenges, such as taking
a driver’s test, asking someone to
prom or getting a first job.
Some goal-setting and boundaries
(such as trying to make the volleyball
team and being home by midnight)
will also help your teen be prepared
for adulthood. And as she becomes a
fully developed adult, you’re sure to
recognize her again.
— Terry Bullick and Frank MacMaster
Dr. Frank MacMaster, PhD, is the
Cuthbertson and Fischer Chair
in Paediatric Mental Health at the
University of Calgary. He’s based at
Alberta Children’s Hospital.