When children are young, it’s easy to celebrate their developmental changes. We’re excited to write down their first words and send photos of first steps to grandparents.
We also naturally scaffold their learning by breaking tasks down into manageable parts. We speak in short, simple phrases when they’re learning to talk; we open our arms toward them when they’re beginning to walk; we ease their little arms into sleeves as they’re learning to dress; and we practice, practice, practice tying their shoelaces with them.
At the same time, we mitigate their risks. We baby-proof the house, clear the coffee table of breakables, and put gates across stairwells.
But something breaks down midway on the journey to adulthood. Around about twelve years of age, our children’s behavior can become perplexing to us. It can feel like they just want to push against us, replace us with peers, make bad decisions, and get into trouble. Suddenly, it’s no longer clear to parents exactly what development we’re supporting–and it’s easy to back off, get judgmental, and start reacting. As a result, both parties can feel abandoned.
Fortunately, we have new information to help us understand this period. Advances in brain science and imaging now let us peer under the hood, so to speak, to see more clearly what is going on at this age. And if we understand the developmental changes better, we can better tailor our support to help them navigate through with greater ease.
Scientists are finding that the ages from 12-15 mark perhaps the period of greatest change of any other point in the lifespan. Modifications driven by thousands of years of evolution begin to remodel the teenage brain–just as they do in other mammals in their adolescence. Perhaps not surprisingly, these changes are organized around preparing for adulthood–for reproduction, and for securing sexual, social, and economic resources.
What are the key changes that happen in early adolescence?
1. Neurons get pruned. The pruning of unused cell bodies in the brain happens throughout the lifespan, but there is especially vigorous pruning from ages 10-14. How do we know? The amount of gray matter (cell bodies) reduces in brain scans over this period. What does this mean? Because “the neurons that fire together wire together” (a common refrain of neuroscience), it means that whatever kids’ brains are doing at that time becomes particularly established. If kids are playing sports, learning music, doing art, or tinkering with apps and robotics, those are the connections that will be made. And if they’re lying on the couch watching TV and eating Cheetos, those are the connections that will be made. Use it or lose it, brain scientists say.
The advantage of pruning is that the brain becomes more efficient. If younger children are generalists, Dan Siegel says in his new book, Brainstorm, teens are preparing to specialize. But this is also the time when a genetic predisposition for mental illness may emerge, as the pruning is thought to reveal vulnerabilities in underlying circuitry.
2. Connections among neurons increase. In early adolescence, the number of connections among brain cells increase, and this integration of wiring continues into emerging adulthood, consolidating (but never ending) around age 25. Again, we know this from brain scans, as we see an increase in white matter, the fatty myelin sheaths that house the axons, or the connecting parts, of the neurons. Another resulting change: Thought becomes more integrated and complex, and reasoning and logical thinking improve. This is when kids begin to like to argue–making and testing these new connections and practicing this newfound skill, just as they used to practice dropping things in infancy or toddling about when they first learned to walk.
What can you do as a parent to support this phase? Try to avoid getting caught up in the content of the argument and instead help your child to think and reason well. When my two daughters wanted to get piercings (they now have 14 between them), my husband and I told them to make their case: find out what the risks were (e.g., infection, aftercare, costs, reversibility, etc.) and stack those against the benefits. This exercise let them hit the pause button and practice reasoning with both facts and feelings.
This integration of neurons also creates a period of great creativity, and nowadays opportunities to express their inspirations have exploded for many middle schoolers. Kids are getting involved in the maker movement, technology, social entrepreneurship, robotics, and app development, in addition to the enduring fine and dramatic arts, music, creative writing, and academics. When our daughters entered this stage, we told them that they could earn their own money for discretionary items but we would happily purchase the creative supplies they needed for projects. It’s a wonderful time to step in to support your children–when their brains want to make new connections and they are not yet hampered by conventional thoughts and approaches.
3. Different brain systems come online at different times, in particular the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system, in the mid-region of the brain, evolved earlier and runs the feeling circuitry. It is the seat of emotional reactivity–the fight-or-flight system and associations of feelings with situations, experiences, and relationships. It tells us what is important to us. Brain imaging studies show more activation in the limbic system in the early teens than in either childhood or adulthood. As a result, their feelings are more intense and they have higher highs and lower lows. It’s not unusual for them to overreact to a neutral comment like “how are you?” or “did you get my e-mail?”
In Brainstorm, Dan Siegel writes that it takes 90 seconds for an emotion to rise, peak, and fade (if not continuously triggered). It behooves parents, then, to pause, breathe, and choose a constructive response while waiting for the teen’s (or their own!) feeling to subside. Even younger kids can choose better responses when they’re encouraged to pause for a bit. At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we teach the “meta-moment” tool…to pause when a feeling gets triggered, breathe, wait, and then choose the best response.
Siegel points out that the heightened emotionality of young teens actually offers an advantage–an unparalleled “emotional spark” that is useful to fuel their launch into an uncertain adulthood and enriches their lives with passion…something we could all use more of!
All this time, the prefrontal cortex–the self-manager, the executive that makes decisions about thoughts and feelings, the self-regulator–is playing catch-up. It evolved later in human history, and though present from birth, it doesn’t finish elaborating and consolidating until around age 25. It is also the seat of abstract thought, and its development and integration allows multiple dimensions of thought to be coordinated and intersected. Reasoning in science and the humanities becomes more complex, thoughts are pondered, conclusions can be formed.
Part of self-management is understanding the bigger picture. I’m sure as a parent you’ve had the experience of kids being unable to plan ahead and weigh future acts. While the cognitive understanding of a sense of time gradually improves (for most adults!), the ability to envision the future and understand consequences actually takes a dip around 12-14–making some kinds of processing just out of reach of young teens. Processing like this will be nearly impossible: “Is going to the rock concert on Friday night worth a possibly lower PSAT score Saturday morning?” “I think I should talk to my parents before I accept an invitation to so-and-so’s house.” “If I join the football team, will I have time for my studies?”
Throughout development, these brain systems learn to talk to one another--in fact some say that the pattern of communication between the two systems characterizes our personality. And in early adolescence, the relationship between them is particularly uneven–emotions often rule and rationale seems spotty.
It is my belief that we have not yet begun to exploit the power of the frontal cortex. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when we explicitly teach children as young as five and six the skills of self-management, self-awareness, self-regulation (meta-skills that were thought to be possible only in later adolescence), they do learn them and use them. I hope that in 50 years we will look back and think we were very emotionally primitive at this time and that kids in the meanwhile have become skilled at using their prefrontal cortex to harness and channel their feelings to inform their actions and fuel their passions. But as of this writing, the two systems are especially out of balance in the early teen years, 12-15.
4. Kids become super sensitive to their social world. This shift makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: in adulthood they’ll need social awareness to go out and form new relationships, bond, mate, coordinate over resources, and create community. Megan Gunnar, psychologist at the University of Minnesota, along with colleagues, brought kids into the laboratory to do a task, and told them that they were being watched by their peers. She measured their cortisol levels to gauge how stressed they became. The stress levels of younger kids–nine-years, 11 years, and even 13-year old boys–hovered around the baseline. But stress spiked for girls at 13. And by 15, both boys and girls were significantly stressed doing the task when they thought others were watching. This is the age when teens develop an “imaginary audience” and think that people can see them all the time, even inside their head into their thoughts and feelings. They also engage in “impression management,” going to extra lengths to shape themselves to fit in and belong.
Naturally for youth this age, social pain cuts extra-deep. In fact, being excluded lights up more of the pain-processing area of the brain than getting physically bruised does. In a study of social exclusion playing an online ball toss game, teen girls showed a greater drop in mood and a spike in anxiety than adults when they were excluded. And this wasn’t even real life but a virtual experience. As I mentioned in the previous post, this year I tracked school shootings and suicides due to bullying, and most of them involved kids in this highly sensitive and dysregulated period, ages 12-14.
There is an upside, though, to all this sensitivity. When these strong social feelings are honored and supported and channeled well, kids in middle school can show unmatched kindness to others, generous acts of inclusion, and empathy toward their peers.
5. Dopamine is at an all-time high. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved in reward behavior, and it is higher in early adolescence than at any other point in the lifespan. This also makes sense: It takes a lot of energy to leave the nest, and nature has equipped the leavers with feel-good chemistry to take new chances. The downside, though, is that dopamine can seal in behavior with those feel-good experiences, and can be a deadly combination with reward-seeking behavior and substance use/abuse.
Risk-taking behavior, especially for boys, spikes at 12-13, stays high until 16-17, and then declines through later adolescence. Because of this spike, it’s important for us to help our boys especially, but all kids, to find forms of competition, risks, and gambling, that are safe and productive.
6. Peers can undermine decision-making. Young teens get especially dysregulated in the presence of their peers–to the point where their safety can be jeopardized. In a famous study of a video driving simulation, teens who “drove” alone did so about as well as older teens and adults. But when a peer was in the passenger seat, they suddenly made more dangerous decisions and “crashed” more often compared to the others. The presence of peers, then, can create risky situations. One famous developmental psychologist joked that he wouldn’t leave young teens alone with peers at all! I wouldn’t go that far, but I would lightly monitor, invite peers to hang out in your home, and encourage positive peer groups. It gets better, though, and teens gradually become more resistant to peer influence over the course of adolescence until they finally land safely in emerging adulthood, around 20-23.
As a parent, it’s important to help scaffold your child’s reasoning and decision-making–while remembering that dopamine is surging, and they are super sensitive and emotional. (Translation: tread gently.) The gap between high emotionality and low self-management in the early teens creates the period of greatest vulnerability. And just as we gently ease their arms into their sleeves when they’re little, we should gently guide them to reason through complex situations. Just as we put gates across stairwells when they are young, it is up to us to monitor and block them from dangerous situations in their teens. Parenting that is warm and loving, yet sets clear limits, is the most successful. And never fear, the vulnerability gap starts to close around 15-16, and inverts by 18-21, when self-regulation exceeds emotional arousal.
7. Teens need more sleep and need it later on the dial. Teens need about 9.2 hours of sleep per night compared to adults’ 7-8 hours. Their changing circadian rhythms move them about three hours up the clock, and it becomes biologically impossible to go to sleep any earlier. At the same time, though, they need to rise later, and school start times don’t allow that. As a result, most teens are sleep-deprived, with serious consequences. Sleep deprivation is linked to slowed reaction times, impaired recall, disciplinary problems, moodiness, depression, tardiness, absenteeism, injuries, and accidents. In an experiment in the Minneapolis area, when schools started later, students felt less sleepy, got higher grades, had fewer depressive feelings, fewer conflicts, and less bullying–and SAT scores went up.
8. Sexuality. Teens have to cope both with changes in their bodies as well as new feelings of attraction–to and from other people. These new feelings can give rise to lots of “sexual policing” of others’ behavior (especially online), sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, sexualization and objectification of girls, and homophobia, especially for boys. A thorough, qualitative study of teen boys showed that their homophobic harassment of one another resulted in about 75% of them giving up their close friendships with other boys. They mistakenly assumed it was a necessary part of growing up, and it left them bereft, at sea, and depressed.
First sexual experiences can also occur at this time. Sadly, a study of 100 women’s first sexual experiences found that only 10% of women had a positive experience the first time, so parents of daughters might want to be particularly conscious about offering guidance. My mantra to my own girls became, “safe sex: emotionally and physically.” Psychiatrist Lynn Ponton’s book, The Sex Lives of Teenagers, is an excellent resource on this topic. My older daughter, whose background is in sexual health, gives guidance to parents on discussing sexuality here. Cultivating an ongoing, developmentally appropriate, healthy discussion about sexuality from childhood can set kids up for a respectful, safe, and empowered orientation to their emerging sexuality.
And finally, if I have a developmental soapbox, it is this:
9. Individuation is the process of becoming more independent and autonomous while staying connected to loved ones. Teens often seem to push against parents, but if you look closely, it’s usually over superficial matters, like pop culture. Don’t worry: In close families, kids’ values about important matters generally align with those of their parents over time. For many of the reasons described above, parents’ time with early teens can feel rocky and rejecting, and parents can very wrongly misperceive this as their teen rejecting them. But I want to be very clear about this: Teens want to stay connected to their parents–and have been saying so to researchers for decades. Make sure to cultivate joyful interests, rituals, or hobbies with your teens that keep bringing you back to each other and that balance out the bumpy spots.
The ages from 12-15 is the period of greatest biologically-driven disequilibrium but also a period of great potential. How parents navigate this time with their teens–celebrating their power, enjoying them, appreciating their gifts, scaffolding their development, and mitigating their risks–has a huge impact on setting their compass on a steady course into adulthood. Respect your teens, and have fun.
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Here are some of my favorite, helpful “how-to” resources for guiding this age group:
Dan Siegel’s Healthy Mind Platter
Laura Kastner’s books, Getting to Calm; and Wise-Minded Parenting
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen so Teens will Talk. (It never goes out of style.)
Terri Apter’s book, Altered Loves: Mothers and Daughters During Adolescence
Tricia Mangan’s book, How to Feel Good: 20 Things Teens Can Do
Ritch Savin-Williams’ book, Mom, Dad, I’m Gay
Linda Spear’s book, The Behavioral Neuroscience of Adolescence