The second thing that happens in an adolescent's brain is that the frontal lobe - the bit that helps us to plan, consider, control impulses, make wise judgments; in short, to be kind, caring, considerate people - is the last bit to mature. In fact someone probably should hang a sign on the frontal lobe of most early adolescents saying "Closed for construction." The frontal lobe is being restructured at this time in a way that prepares a child for adult lift.
|Teenagers Underdeveloped Frontal Lobe|
If you are wondering what the big deal with the frontal lobe is, it's really the frontal lobe that allows us to be civilized and human. Susan Greenfield estimates that over the course of history the size of the frontal lobe in humans has increased by 29 percent, compared with 17 percent in chimpanzees and 3 percent in cats.
This not only tells you a lot about why a hungry cat won't leave well enough alone, it should also give you pause to think compassionately about your ancestors, who had to spend their lives hanging around with a group of eternally impulsive and erratic teenagers of various ages while working out a way to produce evolution's latest upgrade - you! I hope you are dutifully grateful.
So the early adolescent's frontal lobe has essentially gone missing in action for a time. This means that teenagers' brains are all tuned up for emotions, fighting, running away, and romance, but not so well tuned up for planning, controlling impulses, and forward thinking. Some parents forget this. They wouldn't dream of giving their teenager free access to their life savings, but they will quite frequently leave them in charge of a $300,000 house flail of fine furniture and still be stunned by the results!
Parents need to be their teenage children's frontal lobe. Asking an adolescent to do a lot of forward planning is like asking a toddler to study physics. This is also the reason why too much freedom too soon does not seem to help too many young people.
Early teenagers are yet to grow into themselves. The average teenager gains 45 pounds and grows almost a foot and a half in the space of four or five years. I'm sure many of you know the sensation of being in a room with a group of young people who seem to be a clumsy jumble of elbows, knees, pimples, and groins. Just as they haven't grown into their bodies, they haven't quite grown into their brains, either.
It's almost as if teenagers at this stage are like a very powerful, juiced-up sports car: great acceleration, terrific lines, great sex appeal, but very poor brakes ... oh, and a driver with the road sense of an earwig.
Implications for parents of bright adolescents
- Adolescents are not mini-adults.
- Don't expect them to show a lot of forethought or planning.
- The brain is restructuring to become more efficient, and we need to capitalize on this. Help them to develop habits and routines that allow them to work smarter, not harder.
A couple of other interesting things are happening for adolescents. The first is that hormones become more powerful, and adolescents' brains show more activity in the emotional parts of the brain (known as the limbic system) than they do in the planning and the impulse-control parts (known as the frontal lobe and the pre-frontal cortex, respectively). This means that adolescents learn best when there is emotion involved! Adolescents remember stuff about themselves and stuff that is relevant to their life situations. As Homer Simpson would say, "D'oh!"
One father I spoke to wanted to put a sign on his daughter's bedroom door that stated, "Warning - Wide Mood Swings!" Adolescents like intensity, excitement, and arousal. They are drawn to music, passion, horror films. Around this time adolescents usually give off exaggerated secondary signals such as sneers, rolling eyes, and sighing. Unwise parents and teachers respond to these. This is why it is absolutely pointless arguing with teenagers.
Not only are they emotionally charged, they are also lousy at reading other people's emotions, particularly fear. It may well be that the brain develops best when allowed to play, linger, and persist in areas of interest, and that this may especially be so when the early adolescent is in the company of someone whose opinion he cares about. To find out more, you can check out Teenagers Underdeveloped Frontal Lobe.