Puberty in the Brain
When I was young, my family moved a lot. By the time I was in eighth grade, I had attended five different schools. You would think I would have been used to moving around, but I vividly remember driving to school in eighth grade and holding back tears due to nerves and anxiety.
Now looking back, I understand. It wasn’t the school. I loved my classmates and teacher and did just fine academically. It wasn’t my family, my friends or anything external that caused the anxiety. I’m convinced the reason for my difficult adjustment was something we all experience: puberty and raging hormones.
What happens during puberty
Puberty affects everyone differently, as you probably know if you’ve worked with children of this age group. For some adolescents, its effects are subtle and manifest internally. For others, the changes going on inside their bodies might manifest externally – specifically, at school.
Since my own children are still young, I thought I’d discuss this issue with psychologist Justine Hansen. She works as the school psychologist and special education consultant at Great Hearts Monte Vista. I asked her why puberty can be such a tumultuous time for kids and parents.
She explained, “Puberty triggers increases in emotionality, risk taking, sexual interest and sensitivity to social factors. At the same time, the portions of the brain responsible for reasoning, problem-solving, and self-regulation have not yet fully matured. When you add to this the fact that today’s adolescents face significant challenges at increasingly early ages, it’s no wonder that puberty is stressful time — for teens and parents alike.”
A rapidly changing brain
This conflict also goes on at other stages of childhood. (My 2-year-old is clearly going through something similar, in fact.) But during puberty, the changes occur at a rapid-fire pace. In his excellent book, Why Do They Act That Way, author David Walsh, Ph.D., discusses the way the brain’s basic developmental processes – known as blossoming, pruning, and myelinization – accelerate during puberty:
“…key brain areas undergo their blossoming and pruning periods only during adolescence. Further, the corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres, is still undergoing major construction from childhood into adolescence. The myelination process in certain parts of the teen brain actually increases by 100 percent from the beginning of adolescence to the end. One of the circuits involved in emotional regulation, for example, is still being myelinated during adolescence, which accounts for the lightning-quick flashes of anger when you, for example, tell an adolescent she has to get off the computer so other people in the family can use it.”
You’re not alone
As with many parenting struggles, knowing these changes are normal can help put things in perspective. Hansen stressed the importance of respecting the process and supporting adolescents during these challenging stages of development: “It is important to keep in mind that these changes signal normal, healthy development. While parents should respect their child’s increasing need for independence, it is also important to provide supervision and guidance during this period of pre-adulthood.”
The power of sleep
One simple way parents can provide this support is by encouraging healthy sleep patterns. As noted above, the brain is going through some intense changes during puberty, and getting enough sleep is one of the best ways to help adolescents and teens perform their best in school. Hansen explains, “Getting enough sleep is an important challenge during adolescence. One reason for this is that sleep cycles shift, causing teens to fall asleep later at night and sleep later into the morning. Social activities, school work, jobs and other activities also contribute to later bedtimes. Unfortunately, morning schedules do not always allow for the later wake times teens naturally want.
“Although the amount of sleep needed nightly decreases during adolescence, CDC research shows that less than one-third of adolescents get at least 8 hours of sleep nightly (teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours sleep per night). While poor sleep is associated with a host of difficulties, the benefits of adequate sleep include increased learning and memory, normalized hormone production, better test performance and higher grades. Parents can support their child’s sleep needs by protecting bedtimes, avoiding caffeine, ensuring daily exercise, turning off screens and dimming light one hour before bedtime and modeling good sleep habits.”
So now looking back on my eighth-grade struggles, I can say, Mom and Dad, it wasn’t your fault. I was just going through puberty. Hopefully I can remember that when it’s my turn to guide my own kids through this challenging and exciting period of development.
By Nicole Crawford