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Training the Adolescent Brain

By Bonnie Gonzalez | August 1, 2019 | High School, Meet the Teachers, The Science of Learning

Bonnie Gonzalez’s current course offering

As a professional counselor, teacher, and former homeschool parent, I want to give you some information which will help you to navigate the emotional angst that often comes with homeschooling teens.

Teenage Angst and the Brain

As a homeschooling parent, you have been the market leader in the field of parenting – an expert at understanding the personality and learning style of your children. But now at the onset of adolescence, “the times they are a changing.”  Teens are a “different animal” and it’s a  “whole new ballgame.” From both a psychological and parenting perspective we have many theories about why our kids are suddenly risk takers, judgement-impaired, contrary, and unpredictable.  For years we’ve heard that teen behavior is a result of early childhood experiences, peer pressure, hormones, and sometimes bad parenting.  But the latest research suggests another cause—structural changes in a teenager’s brain may largely be to blame for the chaos.

Without going into a lot of technical terminology, recent studies have discovered that the brain does the bulk of it’s maturing between the ages of 12 and 20 (and in boys this may even extend into the mid 20’s).  The prefrontal cortex, where most of our ability to calm our emotions and make rational decisions occurs is the slowest part of the brain to develop.  So, yes, there may be a reason for the irrational behavior you are seeing in your adolescent son or daughter.

Wiring Through Homeschooling

Okay, so what does this mean to you, as the homeschooling parent of this wildly emotional, and often irrational, growing teen?  First, there is some good news.  Positive things such as sports, music, school achievement, and responsibility can be “wired” into that changing adolescent brain, by you as the parent and teacher.  There is lots of room for change and second chances abound during this prefrontal expansion.  The bad news is that if those teen years are filled with anger and alienation, these characteristics may too, get “set in stone.”  Adolescence is an important time, and you have the ability to guide your teen through this time.

My caution to you is this:  in this time of unpresedented brain development, many new and unpredictable thoughts and behaviors can arise.  Often emotions and actions can outrun judgement capabilities, just like they did in early childhood.  Teens find it difficult to process emotions such as anger and fear; and their behavior in the midst of this emotional turmoil, can be maddening.  But remember, this behavior is not a character flaw, but rather simply a function of some confused wiring in the brain, which will eventually straighten out.  The goal is to respond to this behavior with responses which will allow the teen to become well-adjusted.    Remember the impulsiveness and risk-taking behavior are critical to growing up into an adult.

(Thanks to Michael J. Bradley in his book, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy, Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind, for some of the scientific content in this article. Photo credit: Affen Ajlfe)

Bonnie Gonzalez has 36 years of experience as a counselor. She has taught high school and college classes and teaches an Intro to Psychology course and an Intro to Sociology course through Aim Academy.