Those of us with kids (or who work with kids) are often frustrated by some of the impulsivity and poor choices kids make, especially during the pre-adolescent and adolescent periods. We often think that kids of this age should know better or grow up and be more independent. However, medical research has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes taking place during the teen years. These findings have altered long-held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation. In key ways, the brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s.
All this might help to explain a puzzling contradiction of adolescence: young people at this age are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, and yet, for some, this can be a hazardous age. Mortality rates jump between early and late adolescence. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages. Even though most adolescents come through this transitional age well, it’s important to understand the risk factors for behavior that can have serious consequences. Genes, childhood experience, and the environment in which a young person reaches adolescence all shape behavior. Hopefully the programming and structure provided by a good Catholic school program helps. We do know that all these factors act in the context of a brain that is changing, with its own impact on behavior. The fact that so much change is taking place beneath the surface may be something for parents and teachers to keep in mind during the ups and downs of adolescence.
A clue to the degree of change taking place in the teen brain comes from studies in which scientists did brain scans of children as they grew from early childhood through age 20. The scans suggested that different parts of the cortex mature at different rates. Areas involved in more basic functions mature first: those involved, for example, in the processing of information from the senses, and in controlling movement. The parts of the brain responsible for more "top-down" control, controlling impulses, and planning ahead—the hallmarks of adult behavior—are among the last to mature.
One interpretation of all these findings is that in teens, the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online, or even more active than in adults. Conversely, the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity. Such a changing balance might provide clues to a youthful appetite for novelty, and a tendency to act on impulse—without regard for risk. It is not surprising that the behavior of adolescents would be a study in change, since the brain itself is changing in such striking ways. Scientists emphasize that although the teen brain is in transition, doesn't mean it is somehow not up to par. It is different from both a child's and an adult's in ways that may equip youth to make the transition from dependence to independence. The capacity for learning at this age, an expanding social life, and a taste for exploration and limit testing may all, to some extent, be reflections of age-related biology. Research findings on the brain help adults ,raising and educating children at this age, to understand the importance of creating an environment in which teens can explore and experiment while helping them avoid behavior that is destructive to themselves and others. At MCS, we believe our faith based curriculum which encourages the development of critical thinking skills in a warm nurturing environment, makes good use of this research.