Think back to your child's toddler years. Toddlers are extremely curious, eager to test boundaries, developing personalities and discovering preferences. Parents learn to balance the joy of watching a young child grow as an individual with the challenge of setting limits and managing emotional outburst. What do toddlers have to do with your teen?
Actually, the adolescent phase is much like a second toddler phase. Though more complicated in the teen years, the developmental tasks of creating a stable sense of identity and gaining new social and emotional skills are very similar to the functions of the toddler phase. Adolescence is the second time in a person’s development when their primary responsibility is becoming an individual.
The Challenges of Being a Teenager
Teens are trying to develop into people that can thrive with much less guidance and support from their parents. They are trying to become adults. Of course, the teen years are a little more intense; risk-taking behavior may present more worrisome consequences, and the emotional outbursts are more intense. However, both the toddler and the adolescent stages, though challenging, are also exciting times for the child and their parents.
One of the most influential developmental psychologists, Erik Erikson, identifies the teen years as the time of life where the primary task is developing a secure identity. Young people are actively engaged in deliberations about careers, friends, romantic relationships, and who they want to be in adulthood. A big task! The learning process for this phase is like a matrix. Adolescents are attempting to master developmental functions on multiple levels including cognitively, socially and emotionally.
What’s Happening in the Adolescent Brain?
A great deal of growth and change happens in the adolescent brain. Teenagers are known for being more impulsive, accident-prone, and have increased difficulty assessing social situations. This behavior is a direct response to parts of the brain trying to play catch-up. The amygdala, a vital component of the limbic system which is responsible for immediate response behavior, is quickly developing. At the same time the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for planning and reasoning, is working hard to catch up and assist with higher level problem-solving.
The other part of the limbic system that is working hard is the hypothalamus which is the brain structure that is responsible for stimulating hormones. Increase in hormone activity is a hallmark of adolescent development. Hormones in high gear also impact impulse behavior and make thoughtful planning difficult.
Insights Into Adolescent Behavior
So how does the science of brain development help us understand the adolescent experience? For example, how much do we need to know about how teens learn. The ability to problem-solve, think abstractly, engage in future planning, and consider the experience of others makes teens feel like they can understand parts of their world that were once foggy or unclear. They are also learning how much there is to know, and how much they don't know. Adolescents also feel the need to take command of their world. With their lowered inhibitions and increased desire to try new things and thrill-seek, adolescents are ready to test limits and create their own experiences.
All of this change and uncertainty can leave parents and their adolescent child feeling like they are on a rollercoaster. The changes are by design; the teenage brain is on a rapidly winding journey to learn and grow. All of this brain development serves an essential purpose: helping your child mature into adulthood. Understanding that teen brain development is a chaotic process can help parents realize there is a reason for an increase in challenging behavior. It's normal and temporary - there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.