Timothy Myers, M.Ed.'s  picture
Timothy Myers, M.Ed.
IMBES Visiting Fellow
Harvard University
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Boost Your Teen’s Growing Brain

How parents can help teens in this period of “use it or lose it” brain growth

“Mom, can I go over Jenny’s house tonight? We’re supposed to make a sign for spirit week.” You smile and nod your approval. “Just be home by ten. Tomorrow is a school day.” Predictably, daughter Maria resists the restriction. “But, Mom!”

Mother and Teenage DaughterIf you’re the parent of a teen, you’ll recognize the tone of exasperation in your daughter’s voice. It’s common wisdom that young people aren’t always able to make the best decisions for themselves; now, science is beginning to tell us why.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is largely responsible for decision-making, self-control and reasoning, is far from fully developed at this age. In fact, the preteen and early teenage years may be the prime time that the prefrontal cortex develops in a process of rapid brain activity, including proliferation, or flowering, of synapses reminiscent of early development in babies and toddlers, as well as the “pruning” back of extra synapses as young people experiment and try out new behaviors, attitudes and relationships.

Adolescence, it turns out, is one of those critical periods of brain development and growth that can dictate how teens “rewire” their brains that take them into adulthood. So how can parents help their child make the most of this period?

Jay Giedd, a neuroscience researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health who has been conducting a longitudinal study of teen brain development, says that adolescence could be a period when you either “use it or lose it” in terms of neural connections and the “pruning” that occurs in the prefrontal cortex. Practice is the key to developing the skills that you want to imprint. So if Maria wants to stay late at Jenny’s house, instead of telling her she has to be home by ten, a discussion about curfews in which she has input may help. She would have to weigh such factors as fun and friendship against the proper amount of sleep she needs for school. Her parents may also have safety considerations, and local jurisdictions often impose legal curfews for young people. All these factors are important ways to help guide Maria in healthy decision-making. Rehearsing the process during synaptic pruning may help her develop the neurological pathways that will allow her to make better choices and show self-control later as an adult. Of course, this should all be done under your loving guidance with the understanding that parents do have final veto authority.

The same principle can be applied to many other skills. According to Giedd, the research argues for doing a lot of things as a teenager. “You are hard-wiring your brain in adolescence. Do you want to hard-wire it for sports and playing music and doing mathematics—or for lying on the couch in front of the television?” This especially applies for areas where the prefrontal cortex plays a large role, such as reasoning and planning. Exposing your child to a lot of logic and problem-solving games may develop that part of her prefrontal cortex in a way that will be much more difficult to do when she is an adult. Practice adult decision-making with your teen, and you can help turn that exasperated “But, Mom!” into the voice of reason.

L-rn More:

“Understand Your Teen’s Brain,” more by Timothy Myer on how the teen brain grows

“Teen Reasoning: Not an Oxymoron”: how teens’ brain growth can help them improve critical-thinking skills, by Sandra Bond Chapman and Jacque Gamino

Related Reading:

“What Makes Teens Tick,” Time

Inside the Teenage Brain, Frontline interview with Jay Giedd