The teen brain baffles us, as counselors, during the years leading up to full brain development. However, counseling teens can be both a trying and rewarding experience.
At times, we might feel as though the teen mind is completely foreign. But the truth is, if we take the time to learn how to work with their seemingly compulsive behavior we can use the opportunity to help them through their teens and beyond.
So let’s take a look at the teen brain first, and then explore how we can work with it, rather than against it to promote healthy behavior.
Understanding the Complexity of the Teen Brain
Often, we’re quick to assume a teen’s brain is simply out of control.
Crazy. Compulsive. Unreasonable.
But the truth is, a teen’s brain is simply not fully developed. In fact, the human brain develops from the back of the brain to the front (prefrontal) and doesn’t reach full maturity until age 25-30.
Guess what the prefrontal lobe controls…
- Impulse Control – Thinking before acting
- Emotional Regulation – Remaining calm in stressful situations
- Organizational Skills – Finding and keeping things in order
- Rationalization – Judging and organizing based on facts
- Reasoning – Thinking logically and using facts over emotions
Kind of makes us step back a bit and view all that cray cray with a little more understanding and compassion.
Another part of the brain that’s still developing during the teen years is the limbic system; which in charge of emotions and reward processing. This is why it can seem as though teens take risks and thrill-seek more than adults.
So when combining these two parts of the brain, you can see that teens’ brains aren’t developed enough to balance reasoning and reward-seeking behavior.
If we keep in mind the fact that the brain’s teenage years are unique, and a bit vulnerable, we can approach the mystifying mind of the teen better-prepared.
What Does This Mean for Teen Behavior?
The mashup of the prefrontal and limbic systems’ gradual development leads to common teenage behavior concerns, including:
- Vulnerability to addiction
- Falling in love quickly due to reward-seeking and intense emotions
- Succumbing to peer pressure
- Heightened emotions that may cause social anxiety
- Inability to bounce back from the effects of drugs and alcohol like an adult
- More risk-taking
As you can see that these are traits that the adult brain can navigate better than teen minds. And it shouldn’t be a surprise, because teen brains are still growing, and are extremely open to new experiences.
The Good News About The Teen Brain
When we see our students struggling with reasoning, organizational skills, or other qualities the prefrontal lobe and limbic system control, we want to help them stay on track.
And that’s where social-emotional learning comes into play.
The good news is, the teen’s brain is also going through a process called pruning.
Pruning happens when new connections are made within the brain through new experiences. Then, the connections used most often are strengthened and those that aren’t exercised as much are “pruned” out.
How is this good news?
Well, it means that pruning makes way for faster, clearer, learning, and more complex thoughts. And it’s during this time that we can take advantage of the phase of development by teaching new things.
Use Pruning to Amplify SEL Lessons
Social-emotional learning helps calm the busy mind of a teenager. And since their minds are strengthening connections that are used more frequently in the brain, it’s the perfect time to teach frequent SEL lessons.
We all know mindfulness is like a muscle that must be exercised often, and practice makes perfect. So imagine a mind that’s already more receptive to learning new things and creating new habits.
That’s the kind of brain that can be molded, in a good way, to help a teen carry social-emotional skills with them the rest of their lives.
So, here’s some great SEL lessons to incorporate during the teenage years:
- Deep breathing
- Teaching the value of seeking adult advice
- Teaching study skills (try a study planner)
- Waiting to make important decisions (allow reasoning and rationalization to take place)
- Teaching how to identify and avoid bad influences
- Digital Google Slides Lessons for teaching SEL
The teen brain is different than an adult brain because it’s still growing. But it truly is like a sponge and instead of becoming frustrated with teenage behavior, we can embrace the opportunity. In doing so, we’re helping instill valuable social-emotional skills that will stick with them forever.