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Construction Underway: What Your Teen’s Developing Brain Has to Do With Behavior

Brain development expert Dr. Linda Chamberlain shares insights into how your teen's brain works

Hilary Benson

Published on: February 06, 2017

Teenage girl and mother

Think adolescence is the time to give your kids space so they can make their mistakes and grow up on their own? Not so fast.

While it's a good thing to give teens chores, teach them how to manage money and encourage them to problem solve, volumes of brain research show that when it comes to healthy neurodevelopment, your teens need you (and your fully developed cortex). In fact, teens need you more now than at any other time except early childhood. How you speak, what you do and how you help matters a lot, which is ironic given that we parents of teens often think they want nothing to do with us. 

On Jan. 31, Dr. Linda Chamberlain, an internationally recognized expert on brain development, spoke to a Northwest Children’s Fund forum in Seattle about the adolescent brain. The packed house of about 450 people, including experts in child advocacy, violence prevention, foster care and family support, heard how the second decade of a child’s life is about opportunity, about "use it or lose it" and is ultimately too valuable a time to waste. Read on for highlights from Chamberlain's presentation as well as tips to help you better understand your teen.

Help your teen… take the right risks

A girlfriend who also has a teen son once said to me, "In their minds, they're 10 feet tall and bulletproof." Of course, we parents know that’s not the case. Adolescence is actually a time of great vulnerability. Brain science shows teens don’t have the same level of cross talk between the brain’s hemispheres as an adult; those connections are what allow integration between what a person sees, hears and understands. 

New experiences stimulate more brain connections and new neural pathways, which is why you should positively channel your teen’s eagerness to take on the world. Teens need lots of hands-on, skills based learning that gives them a chance to discover new interests. Rather than telling your teens what to do, encourage them to tackle low-risk challenges like speaking in front of a school assembly or trying a new sport. 

Know that your teen may not stick with the new interest — and that's OK. "We shouldn't get discouraged if they have an interest in drumming this week and three weeks from now they want to fiddle with the flute,” Chamberlain explained to me after her Jan. 31 presentation. "Within the realm of finances and what can be done, appreciate how they want to explore."

Help your teen… get moving

Does your teen love video games? It’s easy entertainment, sure, but Chamberlain says physical activity boosts brain power. Specifically, brain power in the cerebellum, which handles complex activities and is the last brain structure to develop, changes with exercise.

In fact, some high schools have shown incredible academic progress by starting the school days with physical activity. So whether it's going biking, shooting baskets or just taking a quick walk, get your teen out and about.

Dr. Linda Chamberlain's no. 1 piece of advice for effective adult-teen communication: Ask "What were you feeling?" rather than "What were you thinking?”

Help your teen… turn down drugs and alcohol

Throughout her presentation, Chamberlain shared the findings of various studies related to drugs, alcohol and teens. Among them: Sixty-nine percent of surveyed American youth had tried alcohol before they graduated from high school while in the past two weeks, a quarter had an episode of binge drinking (defined as four drinks for girls and five drinks for boys).

While many parents hem and haw about the seriousness of drinking, there is plenty of science that proves the negative impacts alcohol has on the teenage brain. The adolescent hippocampus — the gateway to learning — is even more sensitive than an adult’s to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol.

At the same blood alcohol levels as adults, adolescents are more likely than adults to blackout, aka they’re conscious but unable to recall their actions. That matters because a blacked-out person is more likely to keep drinking, do other drugs or drive. (Chamberlain adds that soon-to-be-published research shows similar destructive impacts on the brain caused by marijuana.)

While drinking and drugs have long been a part of American youth culture, more and more research shows that substance abuse can permanently change a young person's brain chemistry — and that means effects that last long past the teen years. And if substance abuse is already a problem, a parent or other caring adult should figure out why. Any chance of preventing, delaying or completely avoiding teen exposure to addictive substances is a "win-win situation," says Chamberlain. 

Help your teen… feel understood

Sometimes teens drive us parents to distraction with their emotional ups and downs. This, says Chamberlain, is called "going limbic" ("limbic" refers to the emotional part of the brain). Teens go limbic very easily — there’s simply less grey matter going toward interpreting emotions. As such, teenagers are more likely to misinterpret facial expressions as anger, says Chamberlain.

That means we parents should be as deliberate as possible in more health conversations and do our best to not go limbic, too. 

How? Step away. Take an adult timeout. You’ve got nothing to gain from escalating the conflict and may even weaken your relationship with your child if you do. Chamberlain’s no. 1 piece of advice for effective adult-teen communication: Ask "What were you feeling?" rather than "What were you thinking?”

Help your teen… get some sleep

What parent doesn’t feel frustrated on a weekend morning when we’re cleaning and doing errands only to find our teens sacked out deep into the day? There’s a reason they need those Zs, though.

Brain sleep centers are in transition during adolescence. As such, teens need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night. Not to mention teen bodies secrete melatonin up to two hours later at night than adults do, which means your teen’s staying up late doing homework may be a biological need rather than an exercise in procrastination.

When a teen doesn’t get enough sleep, Chamberlain says the symptoms of sleep deprivation can mirror depression or ADHD and even increase aggression. Do what you can to afford your teens good sleep — and that includes keeping tech out of the bedroom! 

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