The Adolescent BrainSep 14, 2023
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What’s going on in the adolescent brain? SO much! Between ages 12 and 24 (give or take a year or two), the brain goes through a major remodel.
Last week, I talked about how puberty is triggered by changes in hormone levels. Today, we’re diving into another process happening within the adolescent brain called pruning. I’ll help you understand the brain science behind what’s happening, why pruning happens and how it affects development.
Changes in the Adolescent Brain
The essence of adolescence can be attributed to the changes in the brain, and one of the biggest changes happening during this time is pruning.
Pruning is when the brain keeps the connections that are used frequently and discards those that don't seem to be needed anymore. It's the process that takes us from being open to anything as an elementary aged kid, to becoming an expert at a few things as an adult.
Just as you would prune extra, unneeded branches from a fruit tree to increase production, the brain is pruning extra brain cells (neurons) and connections (synapses) that are no longer needed.
As a young child, there is SO much to learn, and the brain is constantly creating new neurons to adapt to all of these new experiences and stimuli. At a certain point, it becomes too much, so the brain begins to prune unneeded neurons and synapses.
Benefits of Pruning in Adolescents
Pruning helps to make the brain more efficient and adaptable. It allows us to think and process faster, make decisions and understand things like cause and effect, time and big-picture planning.
It actually makes it easier to learn because the brain is no longer so full of things that it doesn’t need anymore. And with more space, the brain lays down new connections and circuitry toward the prefrontal cortex, where cognitive function happens.
You’ll start to see your tween or teen thinking about things differently and making better decisions as this process occurs. They are more able to think for themselves and become more responsible.
The prefrontal cortex is also where empathy lives. Our kids will have the ability to be more empathetic when they can take on the perspectives of other people.
Stress response will begin to improve. As we talked about last week, puberty creates a lot of work for the stress system in adolescent bodies, but the new circuitry in the brain will then help your kid access better coping mechanisms.
Finally, pruning can affect language and communication abilities, making it easier for your teen to express themselves. This helps maintain open lines of communication, which is crucial for healthy parent-child relationships.
Challenges of Pruning
If you think of your kid’s brain like a house, their primal fight or flight response is the basement, the emotional limbic center is the main level and the upstairs is the part of the brain that does all the thinking.
During the pruning process, the staircase is being built. But it isn’t always built in order. Some sections might be built separately or there might be stairs that lead to nowhere and need to be remodeled. It’s not always a clear, straight pathway. As you can imagine, climbing a staircase that’s missing some parts can be challenging.
And sometimes the brain overprunes (like an over-eager gardener). It might cut back too many neurons and need to rebuild them.
Some challenging behaviors you might see during this time are:
- Emotional dysregulation and mood fluctuations.
- Learning and academic challenges (e.g. difficulty concentrating, organizing information or adapting to new challenges). This can sometimes even look like ADHD.
- Identity and self-concept. As they “try on” new identities or traits to see what fits them, it can affect their self-worth or self-esteem.
- Risk-taking behavior spurred by changes in dopamine and less adult supervision.
- Social issues with peers (whose brains are also going through all these changes).
Kids this age don't know who they are. They don't feel good about themselves, and they might take that out on other kids or try to people please by acting in ways that we don't approve of or even recognize.
It’s important to remember that these disruptions are completely normal AND they’re temporary.
Create a Positive Parenting Vision for Your Adolescent
Kids have to go through this process of adolescence, but it is hard to be around. Here is one simple exercise that can help you not feel so overwhelmed.
I always tell parents to parent the kid in front of you, not the one you wish they were or the one you're afraid they'll become. Fear of what they’ll become is what I see most in parents of teens.
The kid in front of you right now might be pretty challenging, but it’s normal, it’s natural and they’re struggling through this massive brain remodel.
With that in mind, I want to offer you a tool I teach in all my classes called the Positive Parenting Vision. It’s a way to get out of worst-case scenario thinking so you can show up for your kid in a supportive way.
Your kid is freaking out. They’re looking at you to see if they’re going to be okay. The Positive Parenting Vision tool helps you to trust that your kid is going to get through this and move into best-case scenario thinking. Then, they can borrow your belief in them.
Think about 10 years from now, and imagine the best scenario possible for your child’s life. Picture where they live. Picture their friendships, their relationships, the way that you connect with them. Make it fantastic (and ignore your brain when it says you can’t).
Does that make you smile? Are you so excited for them?
This is such a powerful tool because feelings are contagious. If you are worried about your kid, they’re going to be worried and feel stuck. But if they see that you believe they’re going to get through it, they can believe that, too.
This exercise, along with the other mindset exercises I teach are the ones I use all the time to get myself out of fear and into trust and hope. These exercises saved my relationship with my kids, and they’ll do the same for you.
If you want to shift your perspective so that you can show up differently, learn more about my programs here.
- What the process of pruning means for the adolescent brain, why it happens and why it’s so important
- Short term problems you might experience during this developmental stage
- Why pruning unneeded brain cells actually makes learning and decision making easier
- One simple tool to help you not feel so overwhelmed
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