Since the 1990’s, when Dr. Jay Giedd and his colleagues at the National Institute for Mental Health published their pioneering research about adolescent brain development, more than a dozen authors with different backgrounds have written about “the teen brain.” For the most part what they’ve had to say has been helpful. Their basic message is that basic child brain development is not complete by the age of 10, as was previously thought. Giedd’s research showed that the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the part of the brain that creates analysis, judgment, attention control, problem solving, conscious decision making, planning and organization, is still “under construction.”
This finding has helped parents and others who work with teens to better understand why they often take risks, have sudden mood swings or meltdowns and use poor judgment. Rather than being perplexed and angry when this happens, more adults are exercising understanding, tolerance and patience with teenagers.
But most of these authors go on to conclude that teenagers “have not fully reached their intellectual potential and won’t do so for a few years to come,” implying that the erratic behavior that confounds parents is a natural phase of teen development that will pass in time.
While reassuring, unfortunately this conclusion is simply not true.
The period of development of the PFC begins at puberty and lasts about a dozen years, which is enough time for a lot of PFC development. But the amount of actual development varies widely from child to child. Not all young people outgrow their erratic teen behavior. For the PFC to wire for executive and critical thinking skills, these mental abilities have to be exercised repeatedly during adolescence, and only the child can do this work.
And many kids do. They apply themselves in courses that require critical thinking, such as math, science, computer programming, philosophy and other subjects that cause them to exercise reasoning. They play games that involve strategy, such as chess. They get involved in extracurricular activities that cause their PFCs to wire. There are adults in their lives who encourage them to think and solve problems for themselves. The result: kids who do move beyond the craziness of youth to become young adults whose PFCs are extensively connected for intellectual capacity.
But some kids don’t do the work. As you know, many teens are content to get by at school, focusing instead on being popular, social networking and having fun. The problem is that the natural process of brain development involves pruning, in which unused brain cells and connections are slowly eliminated during adolescence. The less the PFC is exercised, the more the PFC is pruned, resulting in a limited foundation for executive function and critical thinking. As Dr. Giedd puts it, “they have to use it or lose it.”
And there is the vast spectrum of adults in between.
Why don’t many teens do the work? Perhaps because they have no idea that their brain has a PFC, what it’s for, that executive and critical thinking skills are crucial to future success, that these skills have to exercised extensively or the PFC won’t wire for them, and that the clock is ticking: they have to do the work during adolescence, before pruning removes all their PFC’s unused brain cells and connections.
It is, after all, a completely invisible, silent and poorly understood process.
Parents, this fact is so important that it bears repeating: Classic teen behavior is not a phase. Not all kids outgrow it. Your child will leave youthful behavior behind and grow up to have a superior mind, capable of meeting all the difficult educational, relationship and career challenges life can present – only if he or she exercises the PFC extensively during adolescence.
So what work should your teenager be involved in to wire their PFC? And how can you encourage more of it? These are questions I address in my book, How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.
Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, including “The No. 1 Way to Nurture the Bond with Your Teen.”