Imagine a bush that needs pruning. It is growing in all sorts of directions, with branches all different lengths. The branches have different numbers of leaves on them, and are reaching in a variety of ways. There seems to be no order to it.
This is what the teenage brain is like….and then it gets pruned. This pruning happens during adolescence and impacts the teenager. Have you ever had a conversation with a teenager and they seem not to be listening and/or comprehending? Pruning. Has your teenager ever done something that makes you say, “Are you crazy? Didn’t you think about the consequences?” Pruning. How many times has your teenager come roaring at you saying that they need to get somewhere NOW and you are expected to drop everything? Pruning.
Annoying as well, but the brain is busy pruning.
Although the infant brain changes as it develops, it is during the teenage years that the brain undergoes significant changes more than any other time in a person’s life. When we think of what a baby learns in the first year of life (language, motor development, humor…) and then to realize that a teenager’s brain is developing at that rate…it is no wonder that teenagers often seem to zone out.
When a child is young they are learning at a rapid rate their neurons are busy making connections all over the place. This is why children can learn languages, musical instruments, and athletics at a quicker pace than adults. Their brains are absorbing everything.
When teenage years arrive, the person is close to being fully grown and the brain has no more room and must get rid of what is not needed. Consequently, those neurons that are not being used frequently are pruned. This is why a child can play the piano well, and then if they stop….they can’t play as well anymore…they seem to lose all ability. Their neurons have been pruned.
The neurons that are used remain and are strengthened. It is definitely a case of “use it or lose it”
Additionally, the prefrontal cortex is developing. This area of the brain is the area that deals with long term planning, morality, impulsivity, emotions; more commonly known as what makes a person who they are. This is why there is so much “drama” in school at this age. The teenager doesn’t have the brain power to make long term decisions, has a hard time controlling emotions, is impulsive, swings rapidly from one emotional extreme to another….all within a five minute period. It seems that car rental operations and car insurance had it correct all along: they will not rent out cars and lower insurance rates typically until a person is 24 years old.
Unfortunately, it is during the teenage years when a person is asked to start making long term decisions, is faced with many moral dilemmas on a daily basis (drugs? sex? friendship? self advocacy?) and is expected to be more responsible. It is a difficult position for teenagers as teachers, parents, bosses who are all expecting the teenager to “step up” and become more adult like. The teenage brains are both pruning and developing and there is a lot of activity!
Teenagers should be exposed to higher expectations, however, be mindful that when your teenager seems to be suffering from brain freeze, or walks into walls, or breaks up with boyfriend/girlfriend again and again it is not abnormal. The teenage brains should be done pruning and developing by the time they are 24 years of age. Hang in there.