My Child is a Teenager, and that means… Brain Malfunction

I could feel the tension as I walked into the waiting room to greet my new clients. Mom looked haggard, anxiety lined her face. Sitting next to her Dad looked helpless in one flash, and totally angry in the next. And the source of all this discomfort; the sleepless nights, the begging, the threats, the disappointments and failed promises sat across the room, dressed in black, slumped in her chair, trying to become invisible, hostility emanating from every orifice, especially her eyes, which certainly weren’t going to meet mine.

“Oh good”, I thought to myself, because I love working with teens, “another brain challenged client.” How did I know she was brain impaired? She was a teenager.

With technological advancements such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) researchers have been able to take a much closer and in depth look at the adolescent brain, and they have discovered malfunctions, several malfunctions. But then you instinctively knew that didn’t you?

Scientists once believed that the human brain was almost completely developed by age five, but that has proven to be false. The brain continues to develop through the teen years and into the twenties. For example, Dr Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health found that during adolescence considerable growth continues to occur in a part of the brain called the corpus callosum. This is a system of nerves that connects different parts of the brain used to make good decisions, and is critical for the development of intelligence, consciousness and self-awareness. Does this sum it up or what? We are dealing with people whose brains are still in the process of learning how to think and make good choices. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he also discovered that the part of the brain responsible for emotional control, rational decision-making and impulse control, the prefrontal cortex, is also rapidly developing during adolescence. I don’t know about you, but on more than one occasion I have been tempted to say, “What were you thinking?” And it seems as if the answer really is “I don’t know.”

To prove the point further, Dr Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at McLean Hospital showed adults and teens pictures of faces knotted with fear. Using MRI she could see the limbic system, the center for primitive emotions such as anger and fear, communicate with the prefrontal cortex in adults when they interpreted the emotions on the faces. Not so with the teens. The limbic systems were working, which means, the pictures moved the teens, but there was little activity in the prefrontal cortex, so they were unable to figure out what the pictures meant.

How miserable for all of us! I think part of the reason that Jr. High and High School can be so difficult for young adults, is because not only are they hurting themselves with their lack of ability to make good judgments and control their impulses, but also they are hurting others because of their lack of ability to empathize, or understand the feeling of others. Add hormones to the mix and ….. well, you get the picture.

The good news is that if your teen is acting insane, this may well be normal, and it will all end in … oh … about five or ten years. Of course, there are situations that can make the teenaged state of affairs worse. Some adolescents suffer from depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, ADHD or other mental health conditions that require an evaluation by a medical professional. And sometimes there are stressors that exacerbate the situation such as divorce, the stress of moving, or substance abuse. One thing is clear however; being a teen is hard even under the best circumstances.Here are a few suggestions I have found helpful:

  • Remember that you are dealing with a developing brain.
  • If it seems appropriate, get a mental health evaluation.
  • Set clear, fair limits and enforce them.
  • Learn appropriate communication and use it often.
  • Keep an eye out for drug use.
  • Set a good example.
  • Take your vitamins. Raising teens is hard work and you will need all the energy you can muster.

To quote Marilyn French;

“To nourish children and raise them against odds is in any time, any place, more valuable than to fix bolts in cars or design nuclear weapons.”

Good luck.