Feb 11, 2011

Helping Your Tween Through Brain Morph

As if body changes aren’t enough, the tween years also bring major changes in thinking, behaviors, interests, and moods. Suddenly, your child can sling some attitude, text without looking, and argue you to death-all at once! Many of these new “skills” are blamed on raging hormones, but the truth is that most of them are actually caused by all the shiny new thought pathways and hardwiring going on in your child’s noggin.

When you (and they) understand and acknowledge all the happenings in their head, it can improve your parenting efficiency and effectiveness, and it can help you guide your child into their teen years with a sense of safety and improved self-confidence. Oh, and it will definitely decrease the drama!

PART II: The Brain Morph
As recently as a few decades ago, scientists thought the brain was finished growing around age two, and “data entry” was all that happened after that. Today, through advanced medical imaging techniques, we know that the brain begins a second, large growth spurt around age twelve and finishes up In the early to mid twenties (yes, twenties—can you say “parental stamina”?). Understanding three important happenings in the adolescent brain can help you mitigate the transition and help your child develop useful skills and habits.

First of all, the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, impulse control, and understanding consequences (the prefrontal cortex) does not start developing until around age 12. And it takes a full eight to ten years to complete the process. During this time, your child needs practice and guidance developing strong decision making skills and socially appropriate behavior. Helping your child stop and think through decisions will help him become a better decision maker. Helping your child “take a minute” to process how she might handle a risky or dangerous situation can help her make better decisions in the future. Just because they lack their own “brain filter” doesn’t give them an excuse for bad behavior. It just reinforces the importance of parental guidance and setting limits for them.

Secondly, the part of the brain that serves as the emotional center (the amygdala) is amped up and in overdrive. Studies of the adolescent brain in action reveal that pretty much every thought, every statement, every action passes through this area and gets an extra helping of emotion. And the emotions are often misread and misfired. That means your tween is not very adept at interpreting facial expression or body language: a headache is anger, confusion is anger, a sideways glance is anger, and a sad event can be uncontrollably funny. Did you notice anger shows up more than most other emotions? It’s the most common emotion they “read,” and it’s the easiest emotion for them to “access.”

You can strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence by pointing out emotional misinterpretations. Teach your child to pause before assuming that actions or words are meant as aggression. Tweens need help thinking about the possibilities other than their first defensive impression. It’s also important for parents to model healthy expression of their own emotions. That means not jumping to conclusions emotionally, controlling the way you express your anger and frustration, and avoiding yelling matches with your adolescent. On the other hand, it also means openly and sincerely expressing your happiness, love and gratitude as another example to follow.

Additionally, this emotional center, as such a dominant part of the brain, needs to be “fed” regularly with things that give your child “emotional highs.” Tweens and teens crave excitement and thrills, therefore risk taking is a big part of their lives. The good news is that healthy risks (sports, live performance, trying new things) feed that center just as well as the risks we don’t want our kids to take (drugs, sex, dangerous behaviors). As a parent, encourage your child to take healthy risks. Allow them to become experts in their areas of interest or skill. As your child takes risks and masters new skills, you will see their confidence growing.

Finally, the third brain change that deserves attention is likened to pruning trees to allow for new growth. The adolescent brain actually goes through a pruning phase as it lays down new neural pathways and becomes faster and more efficient. The thoughts and actions that are no longer used get pruned back (think abandoned music lessons) and the brain begins hardwiring the pathways that continue to be used regularly.

As your tween’s brain is making new connections, it’s important to make sure they remain physically active and practice decision making skills, communication skills, and healthy behaviors like setting goals and establishing personal values. These are the things that they will carry with them into adulthood. Repetition is key to hardwiring. That means whatever they do repetitively will be with them for the long haul. That also means you can be repetitive. That’s right, it’s not only ok, it’s important to repeat your messages to get them hardwired over the course of your child’s adolescence. But be creative with your repetition so it doesn’t turn into nagging. Find different ways to get your same message across. Use examples from school, the news, music lyrics. The more your child hears the same message from you in different ways and contexts, the better that message will be hardwired into their consciousness.

Unfortunately, too many tweens are hardwiring less useful skills. Hours spent in isolation with a computer, or in front of a TV, or watching violent video games can have long term effects on brain development and behaviors.
So, just as your child’s body is changing rapidly and developing characteristics that will persist into adulthood, so is your child’s brain. Modern science has made it clear that there is no time more important than the tween and teen years for establishing healthy habits and spending time honing the skills they will carry into adulthood.


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