Why teenagers (and young adults) still need parenting

The human brain is a very complex piece of living “equipment”.  The brain is constantly working, changing and updating.  It’s potential is truly amazing and if you have watched and delighted in how children grow and become more clever over time, then you will know exactly what I mean.

The brain develops from a mass of very special interconnected cells, to an amazing organised network of information, sensory, emotional superhighways, but this doesn’t happen overnight.  As a child grows, the networks in the brain are developing.  Networks that are not used get pruned off. With pruning comes efficiency,  information pathways don’t have as many options when unused sections of highway are pruned so thinking and processing information becomes more streamlined.  Everything becomes less of an effort as things begin to become disentangled. With fewer pathways to choose from, messages can flow more smoothly and our brains can become much more efficient.

Further, those superhighways that are most efficient, get an extra special coating on them called myelin.  Myelin adds a layer of protection to the highways so that information has less places that it can leak away off the paths.  The neural pathways become insulated so that fewer messages can escape.  Different parts of the brain get myelinated at different rates.

We currently understand that it takes about 25 years for a brain to complete the bulk of it’s mylenation and pruning program (sometimes a few years faster in girls than in boys).

It takes about 25 years (with females perhaps more likely taking about 23), for our brain to be efficiently “grow-up.  Yes – 25!  Not 16 when we learn to drive, or 18 when we vote or even 21 when we celebrate the “key to the door”…but 25.

Motor vehicle insurers do their research. They know and motor vehicle insurance policy prices reflect that things begin to settle in the brain at 25.

The last part of the brain to be fully mylineated in the prefrontal cortex.  Located in the very front and top places of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is the thinking part of the brain and the part of the brain that helps us pay attention, prioritize, weigh up risks and inhibit or put the breaks on certain behaviours or urges.  These “executive function” tasks can all be done by teens at a younger age, but become most efficient in the early to mid 20s.

So, it makes sense that despite teenagers approaching the same size as adults and having strength, they still need an adult to assist them with the jobs that the cortex does – helping to regulate the urges and think things through before taking action.  Essentially, teens and young adults can still really benefit from having a fully developed cortex working in conjunction with their developing cortex.

When we step back from the biology of the brain and consider the psychology, it makes sense that the growth of the brain and the psychological jobs of adolescence aligns and go hand in hand.  The psychological jobs of the teen years is all about beginning to separate out from parents and family and starting to form an identity of your own.  It is not unusual for teens to really experiment with who they are – trying on different outlooks – they may become vegan, change their hair colour, adopt a certain political or fashion statement, become passionate about things locally or globally.  Young adults eventually start selecting clearer pathways for their future.

It can definitely help to have parents or support people who are aware of the major brain changes and psychological tasks of the teen years.

In adolescents, new cells grow in the brain…especially int he very social parts of the brain. So, during the teen years, the young person has to learn to battle between their desire to fit in socially and their sensible, logical part of their brain.

Also with adolescents comes the growth spurt and, of course, the hormone spurt.  Bodies become bigger, stronger and change shape.  It is not uncommon for teens to take more risks, especially when they are in the presence of other teens or people that they find very attractive.

Teens need parents to help regulate or scaffold them through this development so they can maximise social interactions and still pay attention to other important things – like school work, chores, driving or other tasks of day to day living.  Just because they can reach the pedals of the car, doesn’t mean they are completely brain ready for the task of driving.  It makes sense that learner drivers are mandated to have another adult driver (supposedly, another fully developed cortex) in the car with them and that they are limited to the number of same-ages friends they can have as passengers.  The battle between their social brain and their developing cortex can sometimes have them paying too much attention to what’s going on inside the car and not enough to what is happening outside the car.

It’s important to remember that whilst the period of adolescence is perhaps more perilous that other period of development, most teens will come through it and be perfectly okay!

Also, remember that adolescents is a long period.  All of these jobs about helping a  young person regulate themselves do not get done all at the same time.  It’s more of a day to day thing.

The ultimate strategy in parenting a teen is that of “finding the middle path”.  Helping teens balance their urges, especially the social ones, with the “have to”s of life.  Reminding them of the things they need to attend to, weigh up pros and cons and balance our risk and reward.  I think it also helps parents of teens and young adults to stay true to their own life values whilst recognizing that teens and young adults are in the process of developing their own, perhaps different values.  Our values help us to guide our own decision making. Through the process of the rapidly developing brain and psychological changes prior to adulthood, teens and young adults will develop their own value system that will guide them through their own adult journey.




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