Understanding brain development is useful when handling conflict with teens

Misperception of emotion by teens is due to changes during brain development.

Many parents of teens are confused and troubled by their son’s or daughter’s unexplained anger toward them, resulting in misunderstanding by both parties. Michigan State University Extension offers research-based information about changes occurring during teen brain development that may help explain changes in behavior. Not only is their sleep cycle changing, but teens’ perception of emotion may be processed in different parts of the brain than in adults, and is often impulsive and reactive. Scientists have been able to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track the dramatic restructuring that takes place during adolescence.

A neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Jay Giedd, has studied the development of the adolescent brain for more than 20 years. Dr. Giedd is chief of the unit on Brain Imaging in the Child Psychiatry Branch at NIMH. His work documents a second blossoming and pruning process of brain cells that takes place during puberty, as it does in early childhood. New circuits are wired as the brain produces an overabundance of brain cell branches that become more efficient by pruning those that are not used. While this process is taking place, different parts of the brain are activated in response to experience, increasing the urgency and intensity of emotional reactions. Hormonal changes due to sexual development, in addition to stress hormones like cortisol, contribute to teens misreading emotional signals. While adult brains use the prefrontal cortex, considered the executive center of the brain for making rational decisions, the teen brain’s amygdala is activated when interpreting emotional expressions. The amygdala is the anger center of the brain, and teens often mistake fear or surprise for anger. A teen may feel that a parent is yelling, when they are actually speaking in a calm, firm tone of voice. They may interpret a look of disapproval to mean “I hate you”. These perceptions may result in escalation of the disagreement, compounded by accusations and frustration.

If increased tension and heated arguments reach a level that causes either parent or teen to feel in danger of losing control, the parent needs to stop the conflict to allow some time to cool off, so that constructive communication can occur later. Disagreements between parents and teens are normal, but the adult needs to take the initiative to model appropriate management of their own feelings. Teens should still be held accountable for their actions, but parents who can remain calm and caring during conflict with their teen provide a stabilizing presence during a difficult time of development. Allowing the teen to express independence and maintain self-esteem will increase responsible behavior as they become better able to regulate and interpret emotions.

Michigan State University Extension Nurturing Parenting programs provide education to help parents better understand how brain development influences behavior.

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