For a while now, science has understood that the teenage brain is still developing, and that certain factors can have a lasting impact on that development. But thanks to the latest imaging technology, research is beginning to shed even more light on how adolescent experiences — both good and bad — affect who teenagers are likely to become.
Experts estimate that, although the brain’s volume is within 5% of adulthood by about age 5, that development is far from complete until adolescence has passed. For most people, development continues into their 20s.
What That Means for You
Most parents don’t fully understand the effects of certain behaviors and experiences on the developing adolescent brain. Too often, we dismiss certain behaviors as part of growing up, assuming our teens are “going through a phase” and will “grow out of it.” On the contrary however, research has actually shown strong correlations between adolescent experience and adulthood, illustrating the fact that some experiences, whether positive or negative, help determine the kind of adult your teen becomes. That makes it extremely important for parents to be watchful, seeking out help where necessary.
What That Means for Your Teen
Every adolescent brain is different, and development can happen at slightly different rates. But let’s go over some of what has been proven when it comes with linking adolescent experiences and behaviors with brain development. For example:
- Binge drinking can actually cause irreversible brain damage. Researchers have found damaged nerve tissue in the brains of teenagers who drank heavily. It is believed that this nerve damage has a negative effect on both attention span and comprehension. Also, drinking alcohol during adolescence has been shown to play an adverse role in memory and thought process.
- Teens whose parents go through a divorce may grow up to be more anxious or aggressive. They may be at higher risk for substance abuse and delinquency, rendering even greater impact on their maturing brain.
- Smoking pot (especially before age 16) has been linked to cognitive problems into adulthood.
- Abuse or bullying can have prolonged impacts that last into adulthood, including higher likelihood of poor mental and physical health, lower education levels, and difficulty in social relationships.
- Peer rejection is actually more stressful for adolescents than for children, invoking a greater stress response.
- Experiencing or witnessing violence in adolescence leads to a higher risk of violent behavior as an adult.
The Good News
While there are a host of risky behaviors and troublesome experiences that can adversely affect the teenage brain, the news isn’t all bad. Researchers are beginning to study the flip side of the coin — meaning how positive parenting and positive experiences affect the developing adolescent brain for the better. For example:
- Supportive, loving parenting has been shown to have strong, positive effects on behavioral, cognitive, and psychological development throughout a person’s lifetime.
- Learning to play and appreciate music has been linked to higher test scores and better ability to memorize. It has also been shown to improve self-esteem.
- Teens who are generally happy, with a positive outlook on life and hope for the future, are more likely to keep that attitude into adulthood.
The Bottom Line
Many teens are reluctant to listen to a parent who’s in lecture mode. While we, as loving parents, want so badly for them to understand what we are trying to teach them, a more effective method may be to turn everyday experiences — good or bad — into opportunities for learning and growth.
Parents should educate themselves on how different types of experiences can affect the teenage brain. Once you learn, don’t be afraid to pass on that knowledge when the opportunity arises. For example, along with talking to your teen about your expectations that they don’t drink, make sure you understand the long-term effects so you can pass on the knowledge. When your teenage daughter feels rejected by a love interest or social group, understand that her stress level is off the charts and take her emotional state seriously. Encourage meaningful discussion of current challenges, but try to face them with a positive attitude and resolve that will carry your teen into adulthood. And as always, if your teen is struggling with bad experiences or behaviors that you believe are having a lasting effect, don’t hesitate to go to reliable sources for information and guidance.