As any caregiver of a teen can attest, the adolescent years are a unique time of growth and change. The brain itself is constantly changing and growing rapidly. And just as a baby’s brain makes significant leaps from birth to age three, another significant leap happens during the teenage years.
It’s during this teenage leap that humans begin developing the executive processing functioning that creates an ability for problem-solving, impulse control and self-regulating emotions. While this seemingly erratic behavior can be difficult to maneuver, there is so much joy to be found in the teen years, and parents can help.
How can you understand teenage brain development and promote healthy behavior in the teens in your care? Let’s explore how caregivers can work through challenges with their teens and celebrate this big developmental stage.
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Teenage Brain Development: What Caregivers Can Expect
It seems that once the teenage adolescent years begin, changes of all kinds start to happen. Not only does the onset and transition of puberty occur, but school and social changes happen too. This is also when children begin to form individualized beliefs by looking to others for information and answers instead of relying only on caregivers.
Ever feel like your teen’s brain is working differently? That’s because it is! While teens may be fully grown physically, they’re not even close to finished with cognitive development.
Erin Keltner, Vice President of Clinical Services with KVC West Virginia, points out that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until between the ages of 25 to 27 years old. It can be confusing when the physical presence of a child (or even a young adult!) doesn’t match their mental capabilities. “Sometimes, we assume their brain grows as fast as their bodies do, and that’s not the case,” Keltner explains.
Character development is also in major transition and growth during the adolescent years. With the onset of puberty and the expansion of social circles, this is often a time for adolescents to begin exploring who they are inside and how they feel romantically. Sexuality develops — and how they identify could change as well. Acceptance and awareness during this time can help a teen feel safe to be their true selves and minimize any potential trauma.
Teenage Brain Development: Managing Behaviors
This won’t come as a surprise for anyone who remembers their own teen years: Mood changes are bound to happen! The ups and downs can seem to happen with the snap of a finger and can feel difficult to manage in the moment. Why? The teenage brain is still developing the connection between the emotional and logical brain areas.
Many parents have asked their teen, in a moment of clash or surprising behavior, “What were you thinking?” When teens experience an overwhelming emotional input, they may not be able to later explain what they were thinking. This may not be defiance. It might simply be brain development.
Keltner recommends that instead of jumping right to exerting control and dominance over teens, try practicing patience and actively listening to what the child is saying to understand the situation.
Because of this influx of changes, parents and caregivers should check in with their children. Ask how they’re feeling mentally and emotionally. Ask where they’re getting their information and if the source is reliable. Even when it seems like they’re tuning you out, be brave enough to ask the more personal or difficult questions — because they may still benefit from guidance.
“Parents might perceive that kids aren’t listening, but they very much are,” Keltner says. So if you feel like your teen may be ignoring you, take heart. Communication can make a world of difference.
How Caregivers Can Promote Healthy Teenage Brain Development and Behavior
Parents play a vital role in promoting the health and wellness of their child’s development, especially during their teenage years and into young adulthood. Here are a few practical steps for parents/caregivers to keep in mind while working on promoting healthy development and behavior:
- Actively communicate: Stay aware of the changes occurring and encourage a healthy connection.
- Practice patience: Try not to join the teen in their mood swings and dysregulated behaviors. Instead, make room for active listening and authentic conversation.
- Check in on social media and technology behavior: Now more than ever, social media and technology is a key influence on behavior and mental health for teens. Monitor what youth in your care are watching and interacting with online, and keep careful watch for mental health changes in your teen.
- Engage in real-life interactions: Create opportunities for the family or teens to get offline and into the real world. Research shows that volunteering can be meaningful for kids’ well-being!
- Ensure physical activity: Encouraging physical activity in teens boosts healthy brain chemicals helping stabilize mood.
- Connect to self care: Is your teen able to disconnect healthily? Find ways to expand their ability to meditate, practice gratitude, and other methods to calm their inner world.
- Focus on potential: While adolescence can be tumultuous, it can also be a season of great growth and potential! Maintaining that lens helps you focus on the upsides and joyful moments.
Mental Health Challenges in Adolescents: When to Get Help
Remember that the neurologic transition from childhood to adulthood is not linear. If things seem different from one day to the next, it’s normal! This is part of the teenage brain and cognitive development. But while ups and downs are normal, that adds a layer of complexity for those who care for teens. Since mood changes in teens are a normal part of development, it can be difficult for parents/caregivers to know when a teen is displaying normal moodiness and when there might be something more significant happening from mental health challenges.
First of all, noticing differences in a child doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something big happening. “Sometimes simply stating, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed a change in you,’ or asking, ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘How can I help?’ can make a difference,” Keltner says. If you’re unsure, ask your teen what they need from you.
But if changes persist and seem negative, it’s a good idea to get an opinion from a mental health professional. Your teen may need professional support if you notice some of these signs, which can indicate a deeper issue. Here are a few to watch out for in your teens:
- Rapid change in mood
- Withdrawing from friends, or change in social patterns
- Isolating from social activities
- Engaging in self-harm
- Noticeable change in appetite and/or sleep habits
- Substance misuse
- Threatening or discussing suicide (If you or someone in your care is experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911 immediately.)
These signs can indicate that a teen is struggling with their mental health and could benefit from professional help; consequently, some of these signs can also be just another symptom of puberty. “This is where the conversations become important,” Keltner says. “Talk to the teen, to other parents and to their teachers — anyone who regularly interacts with the teen.”
If parents or caregivers worry their child might need additional help, contacting a primary care doctor or mental health professional is a good place to start. Here at KVC West Virginia, we can help. Learn more about the services we offer, and get in touch with our team.