Before You Rag on Your Teenager Know *This* is Happening with Their Brain

The Teen Years. We’ve all been there but obviously being one and having one are worlds apart. Your sweet child who couldn’t get enough of you suddenly becomes moody and irritable. Instead of curiosity and a constant stream of questions and conversation/observation, you now get one-syllable answers and grunts. If you are lucky.

Remember those mornings they popped up like Energizer bunnies before you’ve had a chance at a coffee? Ready to play, ready for the Saturday cartoons, ready for your pancakes?

Now you can barely get them to stir before the crack of noon.

You hardly see them, between being out with friends, locked in their rooms, school and their social calendar. Before you rag on your teenager, here are some key developmental changes that you should know about. It may put you more at ease with all the changes.

And I’m not talking the obvious ones – physical growth spurt, the hormonal system getting kickstarted, or even the new testosterone receptors on their amygdala (think aggression).

In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen a lot more research, especially on the brain. Some of the data may explain a few things for you. Advice from neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor? Keep them alive until 25!

MRI studies show that the teenage brain is not an old child brain or a half-baked adult brain; it is a unique entity characterized by changeability and an increase in networking among brain regions.

Jay N. Giedd, the Amazing Teen Brain, Scientific American

Why are Teenagers Sleeping SO Late? And Then Refuse to Get up?

Teenagers seem to have all the energy to stay up late, talking on the phone, FB’ing, Instagramming, tweeting, playing games, watching movies, and generally doing everything but the single most important nighttime activity – sleep.

What maintains our sleep-wake cycle and induces sleepiness is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland called melatonin. For adults, this starts around 10pm and for teenagers? Yep, you guessed it. 1am. That’s when they START to feel drowsy.

What do they do in the meantime? They push back bedtime even more by disrupting the natural sleep cycle.

Activities like playing computer games and being on the mobile phone, because of the exposure to light, delay the onset of sleep as well. This is because light, the primary stimulus that synchronizes us to the 24-hour day, our circadian rhythms. Light inhibits melatonin’s secretion. By the time sleep comes on, it could be as late as 3am for your teenager. It is no surprise, then, that teenagers wake up later. They sleep later. They are not lazy. They just don’t feel sleepy.

And here’s one more thing – Adults need on average about 8 1/4 hours and teenagers 9 1/4 hours. These kids are also catching up on sleep they are not getting through the week, having to get up “early” for school. This sleep deficit compounds the already common irritability, lack of self-confidence, and mood swings that teenagers deal with. Plus a decreased ability to deal with stress and control emotion.

Tips : Skip stimulating foods and drinks after 12 noon (or as early and as realistically as possible!; turn off all electronic devices in the bedroom or not have them in the bedroom at all; turn off the WIFI (studies show WIFI interferes with Melatonin); avoid stimulating activities before bedtime like computer games and even parents arguing with them.

To help them wake up – have good sleep hygiene and allow a sleep-in no more than two or three hours later than their usual routine which would disrupt their body clock. Bringing in sunlight in the morning helps the waking up process. (hint: tips are also good for adults)

Why are Teenagers so NOT Responsible, Taking Risks?

The Prefrontal Cortex, the front bit of the brain, is responsible for allowing us to control impulses. This means the ability to plan ahead, understand what the consequences of our behaviours are,  how appropriate these behaviours are, and to take in other people’s perspectives.  This is higher-level cognitive stuff.

The Prefrontal Cortex is the last to come “online.” The brain develops from back to front. In adolescence, we see radical changes in this part of the brain. Teenagers are just not yet wired to think it out like adults and are much less inhibited when it comes to risky behaviours and situations.

What Happened to My Curious Little Child?

We are born with many more neurons than we need.

In our early years, as we grow and are exposed to different situations and experiences, the neurons that are stimulated connect with others, while others die off. Through new experiences, adults continue to develop new pathways and synapses. This is neuroplasticity.

Before puberty hits, the brain is a super sponge. Kids are amazing when it comes to learning. They really are. Plus they are curious.

With puberty, we get something called synaptic pruning. In general grey matter volume peaks in early adolescence, before a decline. Like Jill Bolte Taylor says, we literally lose half of our minds. We prune back or lose about 50% of our brain synapses, the ones not being used. This may come across as losing interest but we are “fine-tuning.” It is “lose it if you don’t use it”. Studies in neuroplasticity show that we can build new wiring all the time.

So wrapping it up…

Your child is physically growing up and changing fast. They are turning into an adult-looking person. Adult looking. They may already be taller than you and they are getting more independent all the time. They look it but aren’t quite adults yet.

The adolescent years can be a challenge as your kids question who they are, all the while dealing with all the hormonal changes. It can be a confusing time.

So remember your son or daughter is not quite an adult neurologically. Before you blow your fuse, take a pause, use your developed pre-frontal cortex abilities. You really are the adult here still. By knowing the multiple brain developments at this time, you will better understand what’s going on with them. A bit more, anyway.


Sleep and the Teenage Brain by Marla Popova
Sleep Facts Sheet
BBC Home – Late Night and Laziness
Adolescent Sleep A Look at Adolescent Sleep Needs: Waking Up to the Unique Needs of Adolescents by Lynn A D’Andrea MD and Louella B Amos MD
The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

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