I am sharing this because it explains things that I didn’t know before I started studying it.
When parents realize that brain pruning is a real thing, I think it’s easier to talk gently and be more understanding. It’s not always because the tween is willfully belligerent. Treat them like they’re forgetting on purpose, and they won’t disappoint. They are often just as upset as you are, and they don’t know why their brains are betraying them.
It’s very rare for a child to be lazy during the first 10 years. They copy and try hard to please. Learning disabilities might make it look like they aren’t trying, but that’s not how little brains are hardwired. They thrive on recognition for doing what you’ve trained them to do.
Here is an illustration of a hand representing a brain. Your thumb would be the amygdala. As a smoke detector, its job is to warn of danger. Tuck your thumb into your palm. Your fingers are the thinking cap to go over top. When something the brain recognizes as smoke infiltrates, the thinking cap flies off and smoke alarms cancel all thinking. The body goes into survival mode. I’ll refer back to this illustration shortly.
Brains are amazing! Infants are born helpless. Babies’ heads double in size in a year. Bodies and brains grow, rapidly learning instinct patterns, and next, imitated patterns. Children go through an inquisitive, cranky, and disruptive stage known as the terrible twos. They continue to grow, and the terrible twos eventually balance out when they develop better communication skills and know what is expected of them.
The brain pathways of small children are not built to enable the child to live independently or make sound choices. At this age, they are mostly imitators. By age 10 the child has a nearly adult sized brain.
Along comes puberty. Their bodies grow more hair and start to sweat more; they stretch longer, slim down or expand out at rapid rates. Abruptly they can switch from sweet, questioning childish youngsters into nervous, sweaty, eye-rolling, clumsy adolescents. It’s a time of bumps and bruises with awkward arms and legs outgrowing clothes faster than you can keep up.
As they are growing by leaps and bounds, they also undergo something called brain pruning. This is when those rapidly built childish pathways in the brain are cut to get rewired for adulthood. It’s called pruning for a reason. Those new brain pathways don’t rewire alongside and then switch out overnight. It is hard work to sort it all out. Sometimes things they knew before have to be relearned. It’s exhausting going through these physical and mental changes. The body may not feel tired although their brain still wants a break, so they get cranky and easily upset- similar to the terrible twos (now terrible teens) stage.
The first part of the brain to get rewired and mature is the amygdala. This is the control center for emotions. It is in charge of their instincts that kick them into the fight/flight/freeze mode when in an emergency.
The pruned thinking cap hasn’t grown out yet and can’t rationalize very well. Because of this, little things can infiltrate the amygdala (thumb) causing it to flip up and trigger major emotional fire alarms. This causes the adolescent to fly off the handle and lose control of the situation, as all their brain can think of is danger similar to an attack from a snake or tiger.
These freeze/fight/flight modes make them lash out in anger, slip away to evade the issue, or blank out as if they aren’t there. Even if they are still there in person, mentally they may be hiding in their storm cellar (safe place) completely oblivious to their surroundings.
Loud voices make the problem worse, as they are unable to rationalize right then. Noise bounces around and through them, coiling their emotional springs tighter. In this situation they need a steady adult to co-regulate with and calm them down. Shouting “Calm down!” does the opposite. Quietly tell them it will be ok. Show them how to inhale through the nose then blow out as if cooling soup or pizza. Doing this together in rhythm is a good way to cool off emotionally.
This onset of rewiring is required so the brain learns how to be responsible for itself. Because the amygdala has developed the best, it takes charge far too often. In class when a teacher calls on a student to answer, the amygdala can panic and think “Danger!” which freezes the thinking cap. If the teacher reacts negatively to their panic, it reinforces their instincts that this was dangerous. The idea of speaking in front of a crowd feels just as scary as facing a den of lions barehanded. They have to tell themselves that this is ok, these scenarios are not dangerous.
When a child has a history of trauma, ADHD, dyslexia or other learning disabilities, this phase can be even more difficult. Forgetfulness, coordination, sense of time passing, and all those little quirks that made life tougher for them seem to double in symptoms. They can eventually learn coping skills, but ADHD and dyslexia are never truly outgrown.
The frontal cortex is the last part to get rewired. This is the part that reasons, decides, and then understands the consequences of those decisions. It is still underdeveloped and can’t think straight when the full-grown amygdala shouts “Danger!” Teens often end up saying and doing things that don’t make sense. The childish frontal cortex can’t make decisions as fast or as well as the amygdala wants it to. It gets very frustrating. They need to learn to recognize what’s going on, then adjust their actions.
Feelings come and go. These adolescents need to learn that feelings fluctuate, but they have to decide what to act on. They choose what to do. They make mistakes. If they realize they hurt someone, going back to apologize shows their maturity. Being responsible for the consequences of their actions is a sign they are becoming an adult.
Our adolescents aren’t out to try to frustrate us—they’re learning to adjust to their growing brains along with many growing pains. The brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25 or later. As youth, they are still in the personal survival mode learning how to survive on their own. As they get older it shifts outward to encompass more. Full maturity is when they can focus on group survival instead of only thinking of themselves and their immediate circle.
Life is rough out there! May we help them to adjust as well as possible as they transition to strong hormones kicked in high gear.
Hang on for the ride!
Written by Patricia Koehn
Thanks to an inspiration from the dialogue written by Ms Annie Reneau and Ms Jo Eberhardt; and our own sessions with juvenile counselor Ms Patty Sullivan MS, LPCC, LICDC.
My dear teen,
I can’t see what you are thinking. I know lots of changes are going on. It’s hard to keep on top of the changing emotions and growing pains of adolescence. It must be very confusing for you. For me it is even more confusing, as I only see your actions, not your thoughts.
Everyone makes mistakes. At times I’ll treat you as a little child when you are really more grown up than that. Other times I’ll ask too much of you.
Sometimes what I’ll ask you to do might feel like I’m asking you to cage up loose lions.
I promise I’ll never intentionally ask you to do that. I want you to tell me when it feels like I’m sending you to chase lions.
Please talk to me. Let me know what’s going on in your mind. If you explain it to me, we can work out a plan. We can figure out if it is something you should do alone, or if you need someone to guard your back as you face that den.
Sometimes just talking out the problem and frustration is all we need to do for us to see this lion den is only a squalling housecat hiding under a bush, likely as worried as you. As long as it’s hiding in the dark corners of your mind, you won’t know.
Together we can turn mountains into molehills and face the future unknowns. Just know that I am beside you, cheering you on throughout life, or behind you covering your back, and praying for your future. I truly care about you.
Love, your Mom