Thursday, April 28, 2011

Neurobiology of the Teen Brain

Last night I attended an outstanding lecture/discussion about the development of the Teen Brain by Kathryn Yamartino Ed. M., Psy D. from North Bridge Psychological Associates.  The event was hosted by the Bedford Youth & Family Services (a superb resource for referrals and parents programs).

Dr. Yamartino talked about the neurological and psychological development of the Teen Brain.  She used an excellent and simplified example of brain function developed by Dan Siegal:

This is a great visual memonic for helping parents to understand what happens, not just with their kids and teens, but with themselves when their emotions override their logic, flexibility, empathy and even their morality.

Dr. Yamartino explained how the Prefrontal Cortex, which is responsible for the above abilities (and more) is still being developed in teens all the way up to their mid 20's.  Meanwhile the Brain Stem and Limbic System, which are responsible for their emotions and threat response (fight, flight and freeze) are in full force due to the high levels of hormones which make this part of the system highly efficient.

The power of the Limbic System is a major factor in why teens will do things that don't seem rational... or why their emotions may seem erratic and extreme.  It's all part of their natural development. 

Some of the excellent recommendations that Dr. Yamartino discussed:
  1. Validate your teen's emotions.  Don't worry about fixing the problem or giving advice - you have time to do that later, if necessary.  Often, the process of validating their feelings is enough to make the situation manageable for them.  So take a moment to empathize with your teen before anything else.  Ask questions.  If the situation isn't dangerous, don't worry if you don't fully understand - that's less important than caring about how they feel.  If they say something is "terrible", then realize that it IS terrible for them.  Telling them that it isn't as bad as it seems will only cause them to feel like they aren't being understood.
  2. Empathize but don't claim their feelings.  Sometimes parents can take on the emotions of their teen and get worked up or even more upset than their child.  Try to allow and support your teen in their emotional place without taking on those emotions as your own.  Sometimes the act of claiming a teen's feelings can make them feel anxious about sharing their feelings with a their parent because they can become worried about the parent getting upset.
  3. Apologize if you overreact.  Being a "Consistent Parent" does not mean never admitting you're wrong.  If you "flip your lid" and say something hurtful or state an imulisve punishment that seems harsh, take some time to calm down and re-consider your intentions.  Then go back, apologize and establish consequences that seem more in line with the offense.  Just because you said something in the heat of the moment does not mean you have to enforce it to remain "consistent".  You are human and you make mistakes.  Just like your teen.
That's just a summary of some of the excellent information that was discussed at this lecture.  Personally, I enjoyed talking about the concepts of brain development with my own teens.  They find biology fascinating and having words of explanation (what I like to call "handles") on why they may feel a certain way is helpful to them and to myself.

Most importantly, it's good to know that teens who do things that make us go "huh?" are being perfectly, wonderfully, normal teens.


  1. Great information! We found years ago that taking the view that our children's feelings and reactions were valid - even if we didn't fully understand them. We respected and never dismissed their feelings, and they became comfortable sharing with us. As they grow into young adults, we continue to enjoy a positive relationship with them - we just don't see those 'teen rebellion' issues we hear so much about.

  2. Hello,

    Thank you for commenting on your experiences here. Neurobiology of the development and function of the nervous system, with emphasis on how nerve cells generate and control behavior...

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