Many people are familiar with the rapid brain development that occurs during early childhood. The developing brain of a baby grows by rapidly producing brain cells and synapses (connections) and then thins them back sometime around the age of three years. Imagine this process to be like pruning a tree. By cutting back weak branches, other branches are given the opportunity to flourish. For many years it was thought that this process occurred only during early childhood. However, recent studies have shown that a second round of brain cell formation occurs just before puberty and is followed by pruning during adolescence. A large portion of this growth and pruning happens in two critical areas in the brain–the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. Learning how to harness the power of the adolescent brain begins with an understanding of these two important areas of the brain.
1. The prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex sits just behind your forehead and is the main brain area responsible for self-regulation. During adolescence the prefrontal cortex starts trimming away neural connections that are not needed and begins the process of myelination or wrapping nerve cells in myelin. Myelin is a fatty substance that sheathes nerve fibers to increase the speed of electrical communications. Think of myelin as a kind of insulation or protective coating for nerve cells in the brain. As this protective coating starts to form in the brain, advanced thinking abilities strengthen. When I say advanced thinking abilities, I am talking about important executive functioning skills such as emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, reasoning and problem solving. This protective coating is not yet formed in adolescents. Myelination in the prefrontal cortex is not completed until the early to mid 20s, so teenagers have not yet developed these advanced thinking abilities. This is why teenagers, despite being quite intelligent, can often seem impulsive and irrational. Nerve cells that are not yet myelinated are also more susceptible to damage from toxic substances such as drugs and alcohol.
2. The limbic system: The limbic system, often called the seat of emotions, sits in the center of the brain and plays an important role in emotions, behaviors, and motivation. At the onset of puberty, the limbic system becomes more easily stimulated. As parents, we often see our children becoming more emotional, more susceptible to the opinions of others, and more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors. During puberty, there is also an increase in dopamine activity. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is critical in creating a person’s drive for reward. The stimulation of the limbic system and increase in dopamine activity make experiences feel especially pleasurable during early adolescence. An enhanced dopamine release causes teens to gravitate toward thrilling experiences and sensations; adults know this as adolescent risk taking. Gravitation toward exhilarating experiences is also why teens are drawn to experimentation with drugs and alcohol and are more susceptible to addiction to these substances.
Laurence Steinberg, PhD, in his book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, says, “The main lesson we are learning from the study of adolescent brain development is that it is possible to influence young people’s lives for the better.” Adolescence is the last opportunity for heightened growth in the brain and to take advantage of the brain’s malleability (ability to be shaped). This is why adolescence is an important time to provide youth with positive and engaging experiences and to protect them from experiences that will have a negative impact.
This important period of brain development presents an opportunity to help your teen accelerate current brain growth and encourage future brain growth. Helping youth identify characteristics that will boost brain development and those that may limit it, are powerful ways to take advantage of this phase of life and harness the power of the brain. Once you have considered what characteristics you want to nurture, and what ones you want to avoid, it is time to start creating experiences that foster that learning.
For example, participation in extracurricular activities such as youth sports and leadership clubs can help build skills that a classroom alone cannot always cultivate. Team sports are good, not only for physical fitness and increasing blood flow to the brain, but also for learning accountability, dedication and team building. Extracurricular activities can provide youth with skills that colleges and future employers are looking for. These types of programs also create opportunities for youth to spend time with those who have similar interests and form positive peer groups.
While considering what areas you want to encourage in your adolescent’s experiences, it is also important to consider what things you might want to help them avoid. Substance abuse is one of the most detrimental elements to adolescent brain development. As discussed earlier, adolescents are more susceptible to damage from toxic substances and are even more susceptible to addiction. Avoiding substance use isn’t always a clear or easy path, but honest and fact-based communication is an important place to start. Today’s youth are data driven, so teach the facts and empower teens with information while avoiding the scare tactics of the past. When adolescents know the facts about their own brain development and how substance use can affect that development, they can make informed and healthy decisions.
Adolescence need not be a time to be feared. It can be an opportunity to encourage tremendous growth that successfully launches adolescents into adulthood. Harness the power of the adolescent brain by promoting extracurricular activities that foster positive characteristics and empower adolescents with the science surrounding their brain development and the impact of substance use.
After working as a criminal and family law paralegal for many years, Sarah decided to follow her passion and pursue a career in education. She returned to college and earned a BA in education with an endorsement in K–12 special education. Sarah later earned additional endorsements in language arts and health. She has worked with special education students in middle school and high school and worked as a general education language arts and health teacher at an alternative high school. Her work at the alternative education campus led Sarah to co-found the Marijuana Education Initiative with Molly Lotz. Together, she and Molly work with specialists and professionals in diverse fields to create unbiased, reality-based marijuana prevention and intervention curricula as well as alternative-to-suspension programming, parent information guides, and online learning modules. Sarah couples her experience in the classroom with her knowledge in youth-specific marijuana prevention efforts to successfully work with educators, communities, legislators, state agencies, and industry leaders across the country to ensure educational practices keep pace with changing norms.