Children’s brains have a massive growth spurt when they’re very young. By the time they’re six, their brains are already about 90-95% of adult size. But the brain still needs a lot of remodelling before it can function as an adult brain.
This brain remodelling happens intensively during adolescence, continuing into your child’s mid-20s.
Some brain changes happen before puberty, and some continue long after. Brain change depends more on age and experience, not on when puberty starts. So even if your child started puberty early, this doesn’t necessarily mean that brain changes started early too.
Inside the teenage brain
Adolescence is a time of significant growth and development inside the teenage brain.
The main change is that unused connections in the thinking and processing part of your child’s brain (called the grey matter) are ‘pruned’ away. At the same time, other connections are strengthened. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.
This pruning process begins in the back of the brain. The front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is remodelled last. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, responsible for your child’s ability to plan actions, solve problems and control impulses. Changes in this part continue into early adulthood.
Because the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers might rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour.
The back-to-front development of the brain explains why some of your child’s thinking skills and behaviours seem quite mature, while others seem illogical, impulsive or emotional. Teenagers are working with brains that are still under construction.
Building a healthy teenage brain
The combination of your child’s unique brain and environment influences the way your child acts, thinks and feels. For example, your child’s preferred activities and skills might become ‘hard-wired’ in the brain. How teenagers spend their time is crucial to brain development. So it’s worth thinking about the range of activities and experiences your child is into – music, sports, study, languages, video games. How are these shaping the sort of brain your child takes into adulthood?
You are an important part of your child’s environment. Your relationship with your child – as well as how you guide and influence him – will be important in helping your child to build a healthy brain.
You can do this by:
encouraging positive behaviour
promoting good thinking skills
helping your child get lots of sleep.
Encouraging positive behaviour
While your child’s brain is developing, your child might:
take more risks or choose high-risk activities
express more and stronger emotions
make impulsive decisions.
Here are some tips for encouraging desirable behaviour and strengthening positive brain connections:
Remember that taking some risks can be healthy. New and different experiences help your child develop an independent identity, explore grown-up behaviours, and move towards independence.
Your child might be expressing and trying to control new emotions. You can help your child find new creative and expressive outlets for how she’s feeling. Many teenagers find that sport or music, writing and other artforms – either as a participant or a spectator – are good outlets.
Talk through decisions step by step with your child. Ask about possible courses of action your child might choose, and talk through potential consequences. Encourage your child to weigh up the positive consequences or rewards against the negative ones.
Provide clear structure and routines. These might be based around school and family timetables.
Provide boundaries, and opportunities for negotiating those boundaries. Young people need guidance and limit-setting from their parents and other adults.
Offer frequent praise and positive rewards for desired behaviours. This reinforces pathways in your child’s brain.
Maintain a warm and approachable relationship with your child. You’ll probably want to keep an eye on your child’s activities and friends. Being open and approachable can help you with this.
Be a positive role model . Your behaviour will show your child the behaviour you expect.
Talk to your child about his developing brain. Understanding this important period of growth might help teenagers process their feelings. It might also make taking care of their brains more interesting.