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Inside the teen mind
They are dramatic, irrational and scream for seemingly no reason. They do stupid things. And they have a deep need for both greater independence and tender loving care. You could say this about teens or toddlers. And here's why: After infancy, the brain's most dramatic growth spurt occurs in adolescence, and that growth means things get a little muddled in a teen mind. Teen brains are also wired to seek reward, act out, and otherwise exhibit immaturity that will change when they become adults. Meantime . . .
Consider the following list a survival guide of sorts to raising your teens, or at least to understanding them a little better..
Editor’s Note: This article, originally published in 2011, was updated in March 2016 to reflect recent research and new information.
Critical period of developmentSlide 2 of 21
Critical period of development
Loosely defined as the years between 11 and 19, adolescence is considered a critical time of development – and not just in outward appearances.
"The brain continues to change throughout life, but there are huge leaps in development during adolescence," said Sara Johnson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who reviewed the neuroscience in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development (Johns Hopkins University, 2009) by Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard.
And just as a teen may go through an awkward growth spurt, new cognitive skills and competencies may come in leaps and stutters, said Sheryl Feinstein, author of Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.)
Parents should understand that no matter how tall their son has sprouted or how grown-up their daughter dresses, "they are still in a developmental period that will affect the rest of their life," Johnson told LiveScience.
Keep going to learn about how the brain develops (scroll up and click "Next")Slide 3 of 21
Blossoming brainSlide 4 of 21
Scientists used to think only infants have an overabundance of neuronal connections, which are "pruned" into a more efficient arrangement over the first three years of life.
But brain imaging studies, such as one published in 1999 in Nature Neuroscience, have discovered that a second burst of neuronal sprouting happens right before puberty, peaking at about age 11 for girls and 12 for boys.
The adolescent's experiences — from reading vampire novels to navigating online social relationships to learning to drive — shape this new grey matter, mostly following a "use it or lose it" strategy, Johnson said. The structural reorganization is thought to continue until the age of 25, and smaller changes continue throughout life.
Read on to learn why big brains don't equal smart decisions.Slide 5 of 21
New thinking skillsSlide 6 of 21
New thinking skills
Due to the increase in brain matter, the teen brain becomes more interconnected and gains processing power, Johnson said.
Adolescents start to have the computational and decision-making skills of an adult –if given time and access to information, she said.
But in the heat of the moment, their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) than the more rational prefrontal cortex, explained Feinstein.
"This duality of adolescent competence can be very confusing for parents," Johnson said, meaning that sometimes teens do things, like punch a wall or drive too fast, when, if asked, they clearly know better.
Keep going: We'll explain teen tantrums next.Slide 7 of 21
Teen tantrumsSlide 8 of 21