Author: Dr. Meghna Manocha
World Health Organization (WHO) defines ‘Adolescents’ as individuals in the 10-19 years age group and ‘Youth’ as the 15-24 year age group. While ‘Young People’ covers the age range 10-24 years, it is a period of rapid growth spurt, seen physically, mentally and emotionally. The physical pubertal changes are easy to recognize, but at the same time there are a lot of changes in the brain’s neuro-circuitry which are not easily visible and form the basis of one’s mental, emotional health and wellbeing.
You may be surprised to know that suicides or mental depression is the second most common cause of deaths in this age group (accidents being number one).The changes that occur in the brain offer both a risk and opportunity. By being aware of these changes, parents as well as the adolescents may better handle this period and transform the risks into opportunities.
Let’s see what is really happening in the brains.
The remodeling of the brain is based on two basic principles of neuroplasticity. One, ‘Neurons that fire together wire together’ and second, ‘If you don’t use it , you lose it’. When a baby is born it has about 86 billion brain cells but they are not connected with each other. These connections between the brain cells (synaptic connections) happen because of the baby’s response to its environment. Our five senses act like a window to our brain absorbing all the information, processing it and stimulating connections between neurons. For example, a baby is born with legs and corresponding neurons in the brain which relate to walking activity, yet the baby cannot walk. It is only over a period of a few months when the baby responds to its environment by sitting, crawling, standing with support during which these connections slowly begin to form between the neurons as a result of which walking becomes possible. Like this, multiple synaptic connections are formed in the growing brain depending on the type of stimuli and the baby’s response to it. And by 2 years of age, the number of synaptic connections are already double that of an adult. From 2 to 25 years, the pathways that do not get used due to lack of adequate stimuli, will get pruned (lost); our personalities are accordingly molded in proportion to the neuronal pathways that are created in our brains. From 25 years of life onwards, by repeated use these pathways get stronger and stronger making us who we are. So in a way, we are what we are, not because of what we learn, but what we unlearn or gets pruned.
Development of prefrontal cortex. There is a growth spurt in the prefrontal cortex, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) , dorsolateral and orbitofrontal cortex which is responsible for higher cognitive functions like empathy, morality, flexibility, consequential thinking, self- awareness. Current research suggests that positive interaction with others and self-reflection, are strongly associated with development of prefrontal cortex.
Integration of higher (receptive) brain with lower (reactive) brain. That is, inhibitory fibres from the prefrontal cortex reaching out to the limbic system, are responsible for our emotional control which leads to development of emotional stability. The part of the brain involved in pleasure seeking activities (nucleus accumbens) matures earlier than the orbitofrontal cortex, which is responsible for regulating emotions and consequential thinking. This may explain why teens are more likely to take risks. But as these inhibitory fibres develop over the years the teen brain changes from the reactive to more receptive, young adult brain.
These natural changes in the brain’s neuro-circuitry leads to emergence of four major characteristic adolescent features, which are both a risk and an opportunity or a gift:
- Novelty seeking: It emerges from an increased drive for rewards in the circuits of adolescent brain that creates the inner motivation to try something new. What’s the Challenge here? It may also lead to risk taking-dangerous behaviors and impulsivity, acting without consequential thinking. How is it a gift? It makes you open to change, there is room for flexibility and helps one live with a sense of adventure in life.
- Social engagement: It enhances peer connectedness and creates new friendship. What’s the Challenge? It may lead to “peer- pressure” and increased risk taking activities. How is it a gift? It prepares one to leave the “nest” and creates supportive relationships, which are research proven best predictors of one’s well-being, longevity and happiness.
- Increased emotional intensity: Due to the surge of growth and sex hormones in the body. It gives enhanced vitality to life. What’s the Challenge? It leads to impulsivity, moodiness and unhelpful reactivity. How is it a gift? It fills one with energy and vital drive needed for the exuberance and Zest for life.
- Creative exploration: Beginning of abstract and conceptual thinking .Seeking answers to who am I and purpose in life, in a sense , expansion of consciousness. What is the challenge? If unguided can lead to identity crisis, lack of direction or purpose. How is it a gift? This “out of the box” thinking may lead to new ideas, innovations and entrepreneurships as seen in so many start -ups these days.
So how does one as a parent help build these gifts in their children? Well, there is no perfect answer to it but we can start by being aware and accepting of these changes. Be open-minded, which to me is the key to evolution of one’s self. Be available and keep the communication lines with your teen open all the time. And most importantly, create a secure, safe and loving environment which is built on mutual respect and trust. Meditation, relaxation, breathing exercises, cognitive and brain training programs are increasingly sought after programs these days to rewire the neural circuitry and transform the risks in one’s life into opportunities.
- Daniel. J Siegel: Brainstorm, the power and purpose of the teenage brain.
- Jane Nelson and Lynn Lott: Positive Discipline for teenagers
David Eagleman: The brain, story of you.