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Your Teen

10 Reasons Teens Act The Way They Do

2:30

Anyone in the midst of raising a teen knows that the adolescent years can be some of the most difficult to get through and understand.

As a parent or guardian of a teenager that wants to be more independent, but also needs supervision and guidance, the times can be challenging indeed.

If that’s the position you find yourself in, you may be asking – what’s going on in that youngster’s brain? Actually, there’s a lot happening!

There are several scientific reasons an adolescent brain can be similar to a toddler’s: After infancy, the brain's most dramatic growth spurt occurs in adolescence. Here’s 10 things you may not know about your teen’s brain.

10. Critical period of development. Adolescence is generally considered to be the years between 11 and 19. It’s easy to see the outward changes that occur in boys and girls during this time, but inside, their brains are working on overdrive.

"The brain continues to change throughout life, but there are huge leaps in development during adolescence," said Sara Johnson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Parents should understand that no matter how tall their son has sprouted or how grown-up their daughter dresses, "they are still in a developmental period that will affect the rest of their life," Johnson told LiveScience

9. The growing brain. Scientists used to believe the greatest leap in neuronal connections occurred in infancy, but brain imaging studies show that a second burst of neuronal sprouting happens right before puberty, peaking at about age 11 for girls and 12 for boys.

The adolescent's experiences shape this new grey matter, mostly following a "use it or lose it" strategy, Johnson said. The structural reorganization is thought to continue until the age of 25, and smaller changes continue throughout life.

8. New Thinking Skills. This increase in brain matter allows the teenager to become more interconnected and gain processing power, Johnson notes.

If given time and access to information, adolescents start to have the computational and decision-making skills of an adult. However, their decisions may be more emotional than objective because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) than the more rational prefrontal cortex.

"This duality of adolescent competence can be very confusing for parents," Johnson said, meaning that sometimes teens do things, like punching a wall or driving too fast, when, if asked, they clearly know better.

Sound familiar?

7.  Teen tantrums. While teens are acquiring amazing new skills during this time, they aren’t that good at using them yet, especially when it comes to social behavior and abstract thought.

That’s when parents can become the proverbial guinea pig. Many kids this age view conflict as a type of self-expression and may have trouble focusing on an abstract idea or understanding another's point of view.

Particularly in today’s heavy media influenced world, teens are dealing with a huge amount of social, emotional and cognitive flux says Sheryl Feinstein, author of Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.)

That’s when they need a more stable adult brain (parents) to help them stay calm and find the better path.

6. Intense emotions. Remember the limbic system mentioned earlier (the more emotional part of the brain)? It’s accelerated development, along with hormonal changes, may give rise to newly intense experiences of rage, fear, aggression (including towards oneself), excitement and sexual attraction.

Over the course of adolescence, the limbic system comes under greater control of the prefrontal cortex, the area just behind the forehead, which is associated with planning, impulse control and higher order thought.

As teens grow older, additional areas in the brain start to help it process emotions and gain equilibrium in decision-making and interpreting others. But until that time, teens can often misread parents and teachers Feinstein said.

5. Peer pressure. As teens become better at abstract thinking, their social anxiety begins to increase.  Ever wonder why your teen seems obsessed with what others are thinking and doing?

Abstract reasoning makes it possible to consider yourself from the eyes of another. Teens may use this new skill to ruminate about what others are thinking of them. In particular, peer approval has been shown to be highly rewarding to the teen brain, Johnson said, which may be why teens are more likely to take risks when other teens are around.

Friends also provide teens with opportunities to learn skills such as negotiating, compromise and group planning. "They are practicing adult social skills in a safe setting and they are really not good at it at first," Feinstein said. So even if all they do is sit around with their friends, teens are hard at work acquiring important life skills.

4. Measuring risk.  "The brakes come online somewhat later than the accelerator of the brain," said Johnson, referring to the development of the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system respectively.

At the same time, "teens need higher doses of risk to feel the same amount of rush adults do," Johnson said. Not a very comforting thought for parents.

This is a time when teens are vulnerable to engaging in risky behaviors, such as trying drugs, sex, getting into fights or jumping into unsafe water.

So what can a parent do during this risky time? "Continue to parent your child." Johnson said. Like all children, "teens have specific developmental vulnerabilities and they need parents to limit their behavior," she said.

It’s when being a parent to your child instead of trying to be their “friend” is more difficult but much more important for their physical and emotional safety.

3. Yes, parents are still important. According to Feinstein, a survey of teenagers revealed that 84 percent think highly of their mothers and 89 percent think highly of their fathers. And more than three-quarters of teenagers enjoy spending time with their parents; 79 percent enjoy hanging out with Mom and 76 percent like chilling with Dad. That’s not 100%, but it’s probably more than you thought.

One of the tasks of adolescence is separating from the family and establishing some autonomy, Feinstein said, but that does not mean a teen no longer needs parents – even if they say otherwise.

"They still need some structure and are looking to their parents to provide that structure," she said. "The parent that decides to treat a 16 or 17 year old as an adult is behaving unfairly and setting them up for failure." 

Listening to your teen and being a good role model, especially when dealing with stress and the other difficulties life can present, can help your teen figure out their own coping strategies.

2. Sleep. Ah, yes, sleep. Although teens need 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night, their bodies are telling them a different story. Part of the problem is a shift in circadian rhythms during adolescence: It makes sense to teen bodies to get up later and stay up later, Johnson said.

But due to early bussing and class schedules, many teens rack up sleep debt and "become increasingly cognitively impaired across the week," Johnson said. Sleep-deprivation only exacerbates moodiness and cloudy decision-making. And sleep is thought to aid the critical reorganization of the teen brain.

"There is a disconnect between teen’s bodies and our schedules," Johnson said.

Shutting down the electronics an hour before bedtime has been shown to help teens as well as adults get to sleep quicker and sleep better. No computer, TV, video games or cell phones.

1.The “I am the Center of the Universe” syndrome. You may have noticed that your teen’s hormones are causing quite a bit of havoc. Experts say that’s to be expected. But you may still wonder- what the heck is going on with my kid?

The hormone changes at puberty have huge affects on the brain, one of which is to spur the production of more receptors for oxytocin, according to a 2008 issue of the journal Developmental Review.

The increased sensitivity caused by oxytocin has a powerful impact on the area of the brain controlling one’s emotions. Teens develop a feeling of self-consciousness and may truly believe that everyone is watching him or her. These feelings peek around age 15.

While this may make a teen seem self-centered (and in their defense, they do have a lot going on), the changes in the teen brain may also spur some of the more idealistic efforts tackled by young people throughout history.

"It is the first time they are seeing themselves in the world," Johnson said, meaning their greater autonomy has opened their eyes to what lies beyond their families and schools. They are asking themselves, she continued, for perhaps the first time: What kind of person do I want to be and what type of place do I want the world to be?

Until their brains develop enough to handle shades of grey, their answers to these questions can be quite one-sided, Feinstein said, but the parents' job is to help them explore the questions, rather than give them answers.

And there you have it. Teen’s brains are exploding with new data, confusing signals and dueling desires. It’s a tough time in one’s development- but rest assured, what you teach them by example and compassion as well as how you gingerly help guide them will last a life-time. Even when you do the best you can, there are no guarantees that they will turn out the way you’re hoping they will – they are after all- individuals with a will and a mind of their own. But now you know a little more about why your teen acts the way they do.

Story Source: Robin Nixon, http://www.livescience.com/13850-10-facts-parent-teen-brain.html

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