The teenage years can be difficult. One moment, they are including us in their lives and decisions. The next, it may seem like our teens are in another world, impossible to reach. There are many developmental reasons for this, one being teenage brain development. Teens brains are undergoing an intensive remodelling process, beginning at around age 12. Other than infancy, the teen years are periods of MASSIVE brain development.
In early childhood, children are taking in copious amounts of information. They area soaking in the world around them and building lots of brain connections ( also known as synapses). We call these synapses the building blocks of neural pathways, or the “connecting roads” in the brain.
Whereas early childhood is an expansion of brain growth, in the teen years the brain begins an intensive process of neural pruning. In this process, the brain removes the pathways that aren’t needed and strengthens the existing ones that are continually being reinforced. I liken neural pruning to the creation of Michelangelo’s sculpture. Beginning with a massive piece of rock, the teen brain chisels away at pieces of the rock that are no longer needed to reveal a beautiful sculpture. This process takes work and mental energy, so if it seems like your teen is a little preoccupied or overwhelmed, consider how busy their brains are: They are actively engaging in an intensive mental re-modeling process.
Why does this happen? In early childhood, children’s brains are very generalised and filled with all kinds of knowledge. In the teen years, the brain becomes more specialized. As teens and young adults, unique individuality and specializations begin to emerge. This is an exciting process if we see it for what it is: An opportunity to positively help shape our teens brains.
Not only do teens have an opportunity to hone in on their special interests, parents have the unique ability to work with their teens during adolescence to aid in the pruning process by the boundaries we set. The brain operates on a “use it or lose it” capacity, so what we reinforce in our teen’s lives helps sculpt the individual they will become through this process of neural pruning.
Although they may not express it in the moment, boundaries help teens feel safe. They may protest profusely at any scent of a limit, but teens are still subconsciously aware that they don’t have the answers. As their brains are working overtime to prune out unneeded pathways, teens need structure and guidelines to help keep them on a safe and healthy path.
Teens will push back on boundaries. THAT IS THEIR JOB. When a child is young, their developmental goals are centered around attachment. When a child becomes a teenager, their developmental goals bend more toward individuation and autonomy. Remembering this fact when we set boundaries with our teens is so important. Their job is to test the limits, our job is to kindly and empathetically keep the limit.
Engaging your teen in the boundary setting process on the front end can be a great way to honor their need for autonomy and control. When building limits, sit down with your teen and discuss what the need is, why the boundary is important, and consider some creative ways to keep your teen safe while still giving them the freedom to learn and grow.
Brene Brown reminds us that that when it comes to communication, “Clarity is kindness.” This is true in boundary setting as well. When we set boundaries with our teens, we are modeling the process so they can set boundaries with themselves and others. Be clear with the boundary and make sure your teen can repeat it back to you. This also increases personal responsibility. If a teen has a part in setting the rule, they will have a heightened responsibility in keeping the rule.
Failure Isn’t Final
The teenage years are prime opportunities for adolescents to learn how to respond to failure. When you model this by reinforcing the boundary of natural consequences (not stepping in to rescue them all the time), you are preparing your child for adulthood. You are empowering them to recognize that not only will they make mistakes as teens, but they’ll learn how to fix them because they’ve practiced that process at home with you. Failure in the teen years usually has less severe consequences than failure as an adult, so consider giving your teen the freedom to make some mistakes and walking with them as they learn how to recover.
Neuroplasticity (which is how the brain responds to experience) reminds us that what our teens do with their minds (what they focus on) can reinforce the activity and therefore, structure, of their actual brain. Dan Siegel, author of the teen guide for parents, Brainstorm, reminds us that the neural pathways (roads) of our teen’s brains are changing as we guide them to focus on what matters. Even though it’s a difficult road at times, when we take small steps to stay engaged with our teens, we have an incredible opportunity to help shape their brains and, consequently, their lives. Don’t give up on your teen– just put on your hard hat and help them re-model.
For a more detailed discussion of the teenage brain, check out the Positive Talk Podcast episode on Boundaries with Teens.