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Helping Your Adolescent Thrive By Better Understanding His/Her Brain

Helping Your Adolescent Thrive

Although adolescence can be a difficult time for parents due to the many physical, developmental, and emotional changes that occur in their teenagers, it can also be a positive experience with the help of some new research from Leiden University.

Often, we find that teenagers (especially toward their late teen years) have a tendency to push the limits and test boundaries more than they have in the past. Sometimes, these changes can seem so out of character that parents who are observing their children develop into teenagers become truly concerned. The good news is that, although concerning, there is a medical/physiological reason for this change and once we understand the source of this change, we can use it to help our teenagers thrive.

Researchers have recently identified that during the late teen years, a part of the brain named the corpus striatum demonstrates an increase in activity. This area, which is hidden deep within the brain, is associated with response to rewards. This explains one reason why many teenagers choose to engage in unhealthy behaviors as a means of experiencing a feeling of immediate reward (i.e. drug use).

There are several positive and practical implications for this study. First off, it gives us a better understanding of the adolescent brain and the changes therein. Part of the phenomenon of stimulation by reward in adolescence is that intellectual stimulation also demonstrates a significant level activity in the corpus striatum. In other words, that feeling of stimulation and reward can be elicited by providing teenagers with intellectual stimulation in domains which interest them. For example, just sharing this study with your teenager and having a discussion about it will likely activate that area of their brain and elicit the feeling of reward which they crave. Another practical application of this study applies to learning. The study noted that when the corpus striatum is activated, adolescents are better able to learn and retain information as compared to when it is not activated. For example, when receiving useful feedback to problems that they had to solve, the sample group showed increased activity in this region of the brain. However, when they received feedback that was not surprising or new (i.e. they already knew the answer), the area did not show much activity.

What does this mean for us as parents and practitioners? We want to take every opportunity to activate this area with positive, functional, and healthy learning experiences so that our teenagers do not feel the need to stimulate it with activities that provide immediate rewards but have long term negative consequences. This can be done by talking about topics that interest them during family dinners but encouraging them to think critically throughout. Another idea is to encourage them to take part in academic/social clubs that relate to their areas of interest as a means of providing the intellectual stimulation. Generally speaking, the moral of this story connects back to the fundamental concept that the more you increase an individuals opportunity for reward through functional means, the less they will crave to obtain it via dysfunctional means.

Sometimes, this can be easier said than done once those dysfunctional patterns have already been established. In those situations, it may be useful to consult with a professional who will be able to address these issues with your teenager and also to help you, as a parent, identify the opportunities to create healthy and functional patterns for your teenager. In these situations, school counselors or clinical psychologists are beneficial resources to contact.

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