LIFESTYLE NEWS - Dr Natalie Solomon, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Research at Bellavista S.H.A.R.E give some valuable insight to understanding the adolescent brain.
Adolescence is a perplexing, amazing developmental life stage. It is a time of great promise as well as a time of unique hazards.
Unlike prior thinking, researchers today roughly delineate adolescence as running between the ages of 12-24 years of age.
Adolescence is a period characterised by many emotional and physiological changes as well as significant changes in the development of the brain. Part of the problem in misunderstanding our teenagers lies with us, the adults, as we assume that when our kids begin to physically look like an adult, they should act like one too. This is a mistake. The adolescent brain works and responds to the world differently from the brain of either a child or an adult. The teenage brain is not just a small adult brain, unlike the growth of most other organs in the body, the teenage brain is not simply in the process of getting larger. The adolescent brain has unique functioning, wiring and capacity.
During the teen years, our brains change in the way we remember, think, reason, focus attention, make decisions and relate to others. According to research by Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, the neuro-developmental brain changes that occur within this particular time frame set up four characteristic qualities of adolescence namely: novelty seeking, changes in social engagement, increased emotional intensity and creative exploration.
These four particular features of the adolescent brain have both upsides and downsides. There are exceptional strengths and unique vulnerabilities associated with the teen brain.
During adolescence, there is an increase in the activity of the neural circuits using dopamine and seeking novelty. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward. As such the risky behaviours in adolescence are linked with changes in the brain’s dopamine reward system. This is further complicated by changes in the brain that support hyper-rational decision-making.
This means that the evaluation centres of the brain downplay the significance of a negative outcome and increase the significance given to a positive result. With this type of thinking, adolescents place more significance on the benefits of action than on the potential risks of that action. While this sensation-seeking can result in dangerous behaviours and increased risk for injury and addiction; the upside of this type of reasoning is that it offers opportunities for exploration, innovation and creativity.
The adolescent brain has an enhanced need for peer connectedness and new friendships. The downside of this is that teens can feel isolated from adults and when they surround themselves only with other teens; also, without adult supervision, there is an increase in risky behaviour and impulsivity.
The upside of this drive for social connection can lead to the creation of supportive relationships, beginnings of separation and individuation and beginnings of one’s exploration of intimacy and independence. There is a natural push back from adult authority. We mustn’t get offended by their push back, we need not take it personally but rather view it as a necessary developmental change.
During adolescence, there is an increase in emotional intensity. This can lead to impulsivity, moodiness, and reactivity. The upside to this shift in emotional intensity is that life can be filled with energy and vitality, new understandings and different perspectives. An adolescent’s new conceptual thinking and abstract reasoning allow questioning of the status quo which can facilitate the creation of new ideas and innovation.
The downside of this shift can be an increasing crisis of identity, vulnerability to peer pressure, and a lack of direction and purpose.
The growth of synapses during adolescence makes teens exceptionally efficient learning machines. Memories are easier to make and last longer when acquired in teen years. This is the time to identify strengths and invest in talents. However, it’s important to remember that even though teen brains are learning at peak efficiency, much else in their brain infrastructure is inefficient, including attention, self-discipline, task completion, and emotions.
Our challenge as parents is to see the power and potential of the teenage brain and the emerging adolescent mind as assets rather than liabilities. Our work as parents is to help adolescents harness those drives to minimize harm to oneself or others, but then channel this drive in a more helpful, meaningful way with limits like sports, creativity and community engagement.
Details: Visit www.bellavistashareonline.org.za