As your son matures into a teen, you might find that he has transitioned into a person that you barely recognize — someone who differs greatly from the friendly, happy child of his younger years. You might wonder exactly what he is thinking and how to handle these challenges. Read on for more information about these changes, basic statistics and ways to connect with your son.
An Overview of the Teen Brain
Research has reported some key findings regarding the teen brain, which continues to develop into the early 20s. While young people this age are enjoying the prime of mental and physical health, they might engage in risky behavior, which explains a rate of death due to injury for those between 15 and 19 at six times that of their younger peers from 10 to 14. They also have high rates of alcohol abuse and criminal behavior. Several factors influence this trend, including their:
- Childhood events
- Peers and
Furthermore, their brain is changing and developing, which further adds to the complexities of their behavior. All of this turmoil is bubbling under the surface, which parents should keep in mind when turbulence erupts. In addition, hanging out with other teens — who have similarly developing brains — can exacerbate this behavior. Positive reactions from peers boost the brain’s reward system, and parents see the results of that via the competitive and risk-taking nature in the behavior of teen boys.
While overall brain maturity isn’t finished until the early 20s, different sections of the brain and the corresponding activities occur in steps. For example, the areas that control motor skills and that process information mature first. Emotional response and connection happens early as well, but the parts of the brain that teach a young person how to manage their emotions and impulses take longer to develop. Similarly, the areas responsible for planning and related adult behaviors take the longest to mature.
Inspired by her two teen sons, neuroscientist Frances Jensen performed similar studies and drew the same conclusions. Her book, “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults,” states that teens’ brains are wired for learning. However, the last place for wiring to connect is the frontal lobes, which explains why teens struggle with these areas.
The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a study through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported on risky teen behavior. In 2013, sexually active teens used condoms 59 percent of the time, a drop of 4 percent from 10 years prior. Just over 4 in 10 teens texted while driving in the previous month.
Additional indications showed that melatonin, which relaxes people, dumps in the brain in mid-evening for adults. However, teens experience that same dump just before midnight. As a result, they struggle to wind down at night. In addition, they need their sleep, so they might struggle for biological reasons if school starts too early.
Research released in August 2014 in the publication, Developmental Neuroscience, “Teenage Brains: Think Different?” looked at the brains of teen boys. One study showed that even if they were told not to respond to a threat, they processed the information much differently than an adult male. For example, they did not respond to the threat of punishment when it came to gambling but focused on the possibility of a big “score” instead. One aspect of the study showed that a substance related to instilling fear in dangerous situations does not function as fully in the brains of teen boys.
Tips to Help Parents Connect with Teens
- Share biological information with them. Explain the process of how they mature, especially as it relates to their maturity and their brain. You might be surprised at how interested they are in the biology of their mind.
- While teen boys will question your authority, show them how to do so respectfully. They still need guidance when making decisions, so provide them with solid examples of kindness and basic human decency.
- Teen boys can learn a lot by spending time with other young men their age. Sports, church youth groups, scouts, clubs and similar activities can help connect them with others who have similar interests.
- During this time, new interests, such as academic, musical, athletic or artistic, should be encouraged as well. Developing these new skills instills confidence into your teen and helps build his self-esteem.
- Mentors, especially those outside the immediate family, such uncles, family friends, counselors, coaches, and youth group and scout leaders, can all fill these positions.
- Provide clear and honest information about sex. Many of the new feelings that they sense relate to themselves and their own bodies instead of about beginning sexual relationships with the opposite sex. Provide them with age-appropriate information and be willing to tackle tough subjects even if you are somewhat embarrassed. You can find resources to help you address sensitive matters at the library or online, or talk with your doctor or a trusted therapist for further insight.
- Address alcohol and drug experimentation as well. Be especially candid when discussing driving while drinking or using drugs. Tell him to call you — no questions asked — as opposed to drinking and driving or finding a ride with another driver who is under the influence.
- Take time to spend one-on-one with your teen son. Shared activities will create strong bonds and strengthen your relationship. Some activities include going for a walk, tossing a football, getting a cup of coffee, playing board or video games, going for a drive in the car and seeing a movie. Ask him to help you with dinner, even if he learns a small task. You will enjoy connecting over a daily task and can help him learn important skills for the future.
- Watch for warning signs of possible mental illness, such as depression, bi-polar and schizophrenia. These mental illnesses often emerge between the ages of 18 and 25. By keeping a close connection with your son, you will know if something is amiss.