Parenting 1: The developing (tween-teen) brain

Posted by on Jun 1, 2016 in Blog: Doing sex God’s way

Parenting 1: The developing (tween-teen) brain

I have been invited to do a series of short segments for CMS parents and teens. So – I’m sharing with you. Here’s the first.

Recent research confirms what many of us have known intuitively, the brain in children and teenagers is a work in progress. This doesn’t imply that the teen brain is less efficient than adult brains, in fact the opposite is probably true. It means that the parts are maturing at different rates and the very rapidity of change makes the brain exquisitely sensitive to both internal emotions and external influences.

What happens?

An extensive remodelling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade takes place. Neurones (nerve cells) and synapses (meeting places between cells) get reshaped and the brain road map changes. This means that thinking processes change from childlike simplicity and trust to the complex integration, analysis and decision-making that are needed to function as an adult.

  1. This process starts at the back of the brain and the structures deep inside. A sort of back to front – inside to out sequence. The emotional brain (Limbic brain) with the associated feel good reward pathways and sexual sensation centres starts functioning early in puberty but the ‘higher centre’ areas (frontal and parietal cortex) associated with control and decision making, actions such as judgement, organisation, planning and strategizing develop slowly and doesn’t mature till the mid-twenties.

Implications:

(i) The rapidly developing emotional brain makes young people vulnerable to roller coaster emotional fluctuations and sensitive to mental disturbance.

(ii) Rapid emotional development drives a search for independent identity (away from family identity as a child/sibling). This includes sexual identity. Friends, peers and other external factors (home, church, school, and social media) will strongly influence this developing identity.

(iii) The disconnectedness between emotional brain maturation and control centres, results in young people being highly vulnerable to taking risks (e.g. driving, sexting, sexual activity, drinking etc.); particularly when faced with peer pressure. When faced with an activity that is perceived as exciting and rewarding – The emotional brain will outvote the control brain.

(iv) The sex hormone input of puberty sets up the simmering drive of sexual desire and the reward seeking emotional pull of limerence (falling in love).

  1. The connections and pathways that are used repeatedly are kept and unused ones are considered useless and closed down (a process called pruning). But which roads are kept? And which ones closed down? This is determined by the environment that surrounds the developing child, and what the child/teenager chooses to allow into their brain. Brain development is influenced by nature (biology), and nurture (environment). The effect of external influences on brain wiring remains important through life – and is the basis of the science of Neuroplasticity.

Implications:

(i) Early childhood environment and nurturing will influence brain development. Children and teenagers need advice, guidance and support to:

  1. distinguish between healthy and unhealthy inputs (internet, social media, video games, TV, comics, books);
  2. recognise emotions and know how to deal with these (including who is a safe person to approach). This is likely to involve discussion on use of social media and setting of boundaries to activities (authoritative parenting);
  3. be aware that behavioural choices – especially sexual choices have long-lasting effects on them.
  4. deal with anything uncomfortable and unexpected (exposure to porn, cyberbullying, sexting etc.)

As the apostle Paul (Philippians 4:8) wrote: ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.’

Today we call this neuroplasticity!

And when it comes to sexual choice, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18 ‘Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.’ – Sexual actions have consequences.

(ii) Friends become increasingly important to both feelings and decision making. And the emotional brain is very sensitive to feelings of non-acceptance by peers and exclusion from group activities (probably driving the feelings of FOMO – fear of missing out). The peer group rather than parents drive emotional health and decision making.

The wise man in Proverbs 12:26, said: ‘The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.’

Take away message:

The developing brain needs help and guidance. It needs an ‘external control system’ to assist the excitable emotional brain keep calm and support the poorly developed control brain to make wise decisions that will not be regretted later in life.

As the wise man said in Proverbs 1:7-9 ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Listen, my son [daughter], to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.’

And – finally, a word to parents: As the wise man said in Proverbs 22:6 ‘Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it