The Growth And Development of the Teenage Mind


Parenting teens can be a challenge. Learn how the teenage mind develops and how trauma affects it.

If you have teenagers, you probably already know how difficult it is to raise them. You probably also know the havoc a difficult teenager can wreak on the familiy dynamic. But is it really their fault? And if so, how can you raise them so that they are productive teenagers and then productive adults? Read on to learn the science behind the teenage brain and how the knowledge can help your relationship with your child and also, within your family. 

"Come Here Go Away"

"Come here, go away" is a familiar message I received from my teenage foster daughters. I was to stay away from them at the mall or when they were having a make-over with their friends. I needed to go do my own thing while they were doing theirs or I was accused of not trusting them or being overprotective. However, when it came time to pay the bills, they wanted me close at hand. As with most adults, I felt rejected and used by the teenagers I parented.

The teen years look like a time of self-absorption and selfishness, yet what I have come to understand about those years is there is so much more going on inside. The adult world's lack of understanding of human development, growth and maturity continues during the teen years. As far as the brain and nervous system are concerned this is the second busiest time of development. It is a time of pruning of some brain cells and strengthening of others depending on repetition of experience.

Teenage Brains Are Still Developing

In order to be better guides through the turbulent waters of the teen years, parents should be aware of the teenage brain's developmental process. As teens engage in repetitive behaviors, these become neurologically "hard-wired" and follow them into their adulthood. The more time they spend learning a subject, a musical instrument, how to get along, the importance of others, or, conversely, zoning out on television, their iPad, texting, or bullying, the stronger and deeper the connections of these activities within their brains.

Being a teenager is also a time of vulnerability because the prefrontal cortex, which continues to develop into the mid 20s and is responsible for making complex judgments, isn't fully developed yet. Further, this part of the brain is prone to being hijacked by emotions, traumas, or other unconscious motivations. It is believed that this lack of brain maturity is what drives impulsive and sometimes high-risk behaviors in teens.

That is why teens need the influence and guidance of kind, loving, and understanding adults. The stakes are high because some of the decisions made from teen brains have life-time consequences.

Disciplining Teenagers

Though spanking may decrease due to the physical size of the teen, many other fear-based methods of punishment are used to keep a teen "in check": shaming, lecturing, shouting, ignoring, threatening, insulting and bullying, to name a few. Sometimes these temporarily work to slow down unwanted behaviors, but at a price. The price is that there is a disruption in the parent/teen relationship.

There is research that supports my observations and experience. In the March 2002 article, "The Neurobiology of Child Abuse," Scientific American, Dr. Martin Tiecher of McLean Hospital in Massachusetts writes: "…New brain imagining surveys and other experiments have shown that child abuse can cause permanent damage to the neural structure and function of the developing brain itself. This grim result suggests that much more effort must be made to prevent child abuse and neglect before it does irrevocable harm to millions of young victims…" 

In her article "Every Smack is a Humiliation," Alice Miller writes, "The claim that mild punishments (slaps or smacks) have no detrimental effect is still widespread because we received this message very early from our parents who had taken it over from their parents. Unfortunately, the main damage it causes is precisely the broad dissemination of this conviction. The result is that each successive generation is subjected to the tragic effects of so-called "physical correction". Physical cruelty and emotional humiliation not only leave their marks on children, they also inflict a disastrous imprint on the future of our society. Information on the effects of the "well-meant smack" should therefore be part and parcel of course for expectant mothers and of counseling for parents."

"Any form or corporal punishments of 'spanking' are a violent attack upon another human being's integrity. The effect remains with the victim forever and becomes an unforgiving part of his or her personality — a massive frustration resulting in hostility which will seek expression in later life in violent acts towards others. The sooner we understand that love and gentleness are the only kinds of called-for behaviors towards children, the better. The child, especially, learns to become the kind of human being that he or she has experienced. This should be fully understood by all caregivers” writes Ashley Montagu in  Anthropologist. 

Some argue that punishment is a religious choice. "The much-touted 'biblical argument' in the support of corporal punishment is founded upon proof-texting a few isolated passages from Proverbs. Using the same method of selective scripture reading, one could also cite the Bible as an authority for the practice of slavery, adultery, polygamy, incest, suppression of women, executing people who eat pork, and infanticide. The brutal and vindictive practice of corporal punishment cannot be reconciled with the major New Testament themes that teach love and forgiveness and a respect for the sacredness and dignity of children, and which overwhelmingly reject violence and retribution as a means of solving human problems. Would Jesus ever hit a child? NEVER!" writes The Rev. Thomas E. Sagendorf, a United Methodist Clergy. 

The relationship a teen has to their parents is a reflection of the relationship that the parents as children had with their parents. Over the years of my counseling practice, I have witnessed parents who didn't make a shift in their thinking and parent from this paradigm based on love and understanding. By the time their children were teens, the gap between them begun in childhood was a chasm. By the time they are teens, children who are abused or neglected in childhood are fed up with the adult world. They have little trust in adults.

When teens are punished instead of taught by modeling through love, they turn away from parents and other adults for safety, comfort and guidance. Instead, they turn to their peer group: meaning the inexperienced and impulsive are leading the inexperienced and impulsive.

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, speaker and life coach and have helped many men and women learn to parent from a place of love, rather than fear. Over the years of my counseling practice, I have witnessed parents who didn't make a shift in their thinking and parent from this paradigm based on love and understanding. By the time their children were teens, the gap between them begun in childhood was a chasm. I offer a 15-minute free life coaching session exclusive to YourTango readers to help you identify what steps you can take to connect with your teen.

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This article was originally published at Soulfull Steps . Reprinted with permission from the author.