Understanding the Teenage Brain

As our children enter the ‘teen’ stage of their lives, they are expected to become more independent in their thinking, both in school and in their daily lives. This independent, higher level thinking is thought to involve a set of skills sometimes known as ‘executive skills’ or ‘executive function’. Executive skills are those higher-level reasoning, planning, problem-solving and inhibition skills that allow us to do such things as complete work efficiently and effectively, interact appropriately with others, and make sound decisions. Dr. Russel Barkley, a well-known researcher in the area of attention and executive function, describes executive function as “actions we perform to ourselves and direct at ourselves so as to accomplish self-control, goal-directed behavior, and the maximization of future outcomes.”

Research has begun to show that a lot of physical changes are happening in the adolescent brain, especially during the first few years following puberty. In addition, researchers such as Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Suparna Choudhury have reviewed a number of studies and found that the brain continues to change and develop, with a lot of those changes occurring during adolescence and early adulthood. These researchers and others question whether these changes might ‘interfere’ with executive skills development during early adolescence, as some of the brain areas involved in executive function (namely the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain) are quite actively changing during this time.

A recent interview on PBS of Dr. Deborah Yurgelen-Todd highlights how changes happening in a teenager’s brain might affect how they function. This research looks at how adolescents might interpret information in their environment differently than adults. I hope you find this interesting.

What are some things that you can do?

There are a number of books that parents can read that can help them ‘coach’ or ‘teach’ their children and adolescents (and sometimes themselves) how to better use executive skills. For example, a book called Smart But Scattered by Dawson and Guare is easily available online or through your local bookstore. Upper Canada College, a private boys’ school here in Toronto, has also provided a number of resources on their website to help with organization and planning. This is through their Richard Wernham and Julia West Centre for Learning.