Tuesday, January 16, 2018
By Hal Pickett, PsyD, LP, ABPP

It seems like just yesterday you had this bright, shining, obedient 10-year-old, and today you have a 14-
year-old in the same body, a little bigger and a little hairy. But what’s really confusing is that this once-sensible child is suddenly making more stupid mistakes.

Well, I’m here to tell you that your adolescent has not been abducted and replaced by an alien. What’s
happening is mostly rooted in brain development and changes that happen during adolescence.
Adolescents are neither dumb and incapable, nor are they finished and able to process information like
adults. Sometimes we expect too much – because at 14 he’s now taller than his father – and sometimes
we expect too little.

What’s going on in their heads (literally)

So let me explain. In the last 20 to 30 years, technology has allowed us to explore the great new frontier:
the developing brain. With new advances in brain imaging, we now understand the brain is not like
other organs in our body. It does not simply get bigger and better as we grow up; rather, it learns from
its experience and what it is taught.

There are some givens in the typically developing brain, like walking and talking, but many other things
must be learned. And if they’re not taught, they’re not learned – such as manners, how to get up in the
mornings, how to follow a schedule, how to manage money, etc.

The pre-adolescent brain is hungry for knowledge. When it has an experience, it lays down a
neurological connection in the brain for each new experience. When experiences are repeated, the path
gets stronger. An example you might be familiar with is muscle memory. That is also why we practice
something we want to be good at.

Now puberty hits, bringing changes not just “down there,“ but also changes in the brain. The brain starts
to do neurological pruning. Yes, like the bushes. It begins to get rid of unnecessary growth to make the
brain more effective and efficient. The experiences that have been repeated and honed become set and
stronger. The experiences that may have been a one-time thing become cataloged in the back of the
large library, which may make them harder to access. Or, some researchers believe, that connection
may disappear, as the brain sees it as not important to keep.

The good news

So do not fear that your teen is becoming dumber. This is really the brain ridding itself of background
noise. It also doesn’t mean the brain does not continue laying down new tracts and learning new things.
It is just more actively pruning stuff it doesn’t need.

As this happens, your teenager’s brain becomes capable of more introspective, formal thought. So your
adolescent might not be as dumb as they look. Their brain is now thinking about everything, trying out
new ways of seeing themselves and the world. Their seeming distraction may just be them getting used
to this new brain and how it makes them think.

And some of their dumb moves during this phase may just be them trying out, in action, these new ways
of seeing themselves and the world. As with most trial-and-error, it can be a little messy at first – but,
fortunately, usually improves over time with learning and adjustment.

What you can do

And here’s more good news. As an adult, you can do more than just sit back and tear your hair out in
worry or frustration as this change evolves. One of the important things you can do with your
adolescent is to teach them how to problem-solve. This is going to go much better if you start in a nonjudgmental way with ears open and ready to not only listen, but really hear.

One model that works well is Ross Greene’s Collaborative & Proactive Solutions model. In it, you start by
trying to understand the behavior from the adolescent’s perspective. For example, “So can you tell me
what happened?” Again, this is a true active, non-judgmental listening process. Continue to listen and
ask non-threatening questions, such as, “What do you think went wrong?” or “Can you think of any
other thing you might have tried?” The goal is to help the adolescent work towards their own resolution
with questioning that will move them to try something different next time.

If there are obvious consequences, help them learn from them by asking what they think about the
outcome. If there are punishments that need to happen, involve them in letting you know what they
think the punishment should be.

And, remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The important part of this process is that your teen is
learning. The process is active and ongoing. With a consistent, non-judgmental model for their less than
adult-like choices, small changes build into big changes – more adult choices – over time.

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