Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – the video

Five Things About the Amazing Teenage Brain

To accompany this month’s publication of the new edition of Blame My Brain – The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed, I’m sharing some of my teen brainy insights with you. The teenage brain is something I’ve been writing and talking about for nearly 20 years now, which is actually how old the original research is. Yes, I was there at the beginning and in fact I wrote the first book in the world to explain this to teenagers and the adults who care about them. Luckily for me, the research hasn’t really changed what we know, just enhanced and embedded it in rock-solid foundations.

So, although I hope you read the book, of course, and that it becomes your go-to source of information, understanding and reassurance, here are the top five things I’d like you to know. And then a sixth, because I can’t easily stop talking…

Five things about the amazing teenage brain, revealed – for the adults who care about them

1. It is biologically wired to push against your protection and guidance

Although teenagers are as varied as adults, with all sorts of individual differences that come about through a blend of genes and other biology (nature) and experience and environment (nurture) there is a set of biological drives going on which make it very likely that teenagers will push against your boundaries, your wishes, your values. This is because adolescence, in evolutionary terms, is a stage of separation: a journey from protection and dependence to exposure and independence. I wrote about this recently here.)

So, conflict is, if not inevitable, then very likely indeed. It might be occasional and mild or it might be relentless and distressing. But it’s neither their fault nor yours.

You can’t stop this conflict but you can make it much less painful (for you and them) by first acknowledging that it’s happening because of biology, not badness, and then by deciding for yourself – you’re the adult, after all – which battles are really worth fighting and which are either or both pointless or actively damaging. When you do decide that a battle is worth fighting and a point worth making – for example on drugs, alcohol, or healthy lifestyle including physical activity or screen use, make sure you back your arguments up with good evidence and respectful language.

2. The adolescent prefrontal cortex is not fully developed

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) doesn’t finish developing until the mid-late twenties. This is relevant because the PFC is the “control centre”, often called the “cool system”. It’s responsible for controlling impulses and emotions, being insightful, making sensible decisions based on looking ahead to likely consequences, seeing nuance and developing moral values.

Adults don’t always get these things right but when we don’t we have less excuse than an adolescent because our PFC has finished developing.

Adolescents don’t always get these things wrong but when they get them right they deserve more credit than we do. They had to work harder and they had more stacked against them.

Adolescents can also be more prone than younger children to make rash decisions, despite having a more developed PFC than younger children. I explained that here.

3. It really does react more strongly to embarrassment and self-consciousness

For generations we’ve observed that teenagers often act more embarrassed than we think they should be or than we think we would be. They can be highly self-conscious about things we might brush off or laugh about. And now we see this extra sensitivity (compared to adults) mirrored in brain scanning.

You can read a bit about the first study into this here, by the now renowned  researchers into the teenage brain, Sarah Jayne Blakemore and Stephanie Burnett. It was a small study but since repeated in different forms. I was lucky enough to meet Sarah-Jayne and Stephanie when they were doing this research, as they had kindly invited me in to hear what they were doing. (They had come across me through an early edition of Blame My Brain, which they were recommending in schools!)

My explanation for the psychology behind this phenomenon is that teenagers, even more than other age groups, have to be aware of how they look and what people think of them because they are trying to fit in, to conform to the group they need or want to be accepted by. It’s that separation thing again: they’re separating from you so they acutely need to connect to others. And we connect by conforming.

4. It needs more sleep

Teenagers aren’t lazy. Well, of course sometimes they are – just as any of us can be. But they biologically need more sleep – around 9 hours, on average, though a) every individual is a little different and b) they can manage fine on somewhat less, just as we can manage fine on somewhat less than our ideal.

I have a lot of resources on sleep. See the page for my book, The Awesome Power of Sleep. You’ll find printable stuff and links to great advice. But if you want it all beautifully in one place with all the science, buy the book! (Please.)

5. It is NOT better at multi-tasking than yours!

None of us multi-task at all well, neither men, nor women, nor teenagers. The science is clear on this. Of course, we can do more than one thing at once; in fact, we are doing so most of the time. We talk while walking, use our left hand to operate a fork while our right does something different with a knife, make a cup of coffee while listening to the radio. But we cannot effectively do two high-concentration tasks at once and not have a loss of performance.

When something – voices, music, worries, adverts, movement – takes some of our attention, we have less for the task in hand. And if the task in hand requires a decent amount of attention, the task loses out.

That’s the same whatever age we are.

But don’t we get better at multi-tasking if we practise?

Yes. For example, using the left hand to operate and fork and the right hand to operate the knife is something because we can do well only because we’ve practised. The same applies to countless other routine tasks that we can do easily because we’ve practised that exact combination of actions.

But that is for specific actions. That does not make us better at multi-tasking.

Take something more general – and very common: doing homework/work while being on social media. What we’re doing when we try to do that is flitting between one thing and another. When we do that, our performance on the work task drops – we take longer to finish it and we do it less well.

And the more we do this the less good we become because what we’re actually practising – ie repeating –  is being distracted. We are not practising concentration but lack of concentration. So we become very good at being distracted. And if we think that’s good for the quality of our work, we’re deluded!

There are some reasons, however, why listening to music while working might not have a distracting effect but might improve concentration. Here’s why.

6. And an extra point, because five things is never enough – the teenage brain is becoming (even more) brilliant

The final chapter in Blame My Brain is all about the great power that comes from the joining up of brain areas that is most evident during the later years of secondary school. From around 15/16 for girls and typically a little later for boys, they can display deeper insights and have powerful ideas. Here are some things you might notice:

  • Greater empathy – for you, for their friends and for people they’ve never met
  • The ability to connect something they learnt in history, for example, with something they read in the news – or to connect any two ideas or concepts
  • Greater ability to interpret inner meanings of things they read
  • Greater ability to look ahead to the future and predict consequences
  • Ability to look further afield and care about the wider world than just their own

Adolescence can be difficult. For them and for you. Sometimes it can be unbearably so. Don’t let it get unbearable for either them or for you. Sit down, read Blame My Brain, talk to each other, talk to someone. Because there’s one more thing you need to know.

It is not forever. How you feel is how you feel just now. Things are how they are just now. Soon it will be different. Everything changes. Your teenager was a child and will one day be an adult. They are becoming.

Stay strong. Stay calm. And look after yourself. If you don’t look after yourself, you’ll look after others less well.


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