My latest contribution to Western Sydney Mums’ Hub is the first of a three parter, focused on teenage health.
A few years ago I held a talk about some ways to nourish your teenager through diet and how to navigate the tricky periods of these years such as puberty, exams and their changing brains. I have covered this topic again, and started off by talking about the teenage brain and the changes it goes through.
Click here to read the full article, or check out a preview below.
The Teenage Brain
Teenagers aren’t just smaller adults. Their brains are quite different in functioning and this keeps going until the 20s and 30s.
When entering puberty the brain goes through a rapid growth spurt which is very similar to what happens in small babies.
There is a growth spurt in the frontal cortex before puberty starts, with a thickening of the grey matter in this area. The grey matter of the brain is where the thinking and processing happens, and the white matter is where the transport of messages occurs.
The brain matures in a back to front pattern, with the frontal and temporal lobes being the last to mature. The frontal lobe is the home of planning, organisation, impulse control and reasoning.
These changes help to explain why teenagers have such a hard time regulating their mood swings. The hormonal changes can bring the mood swings on, but the changes in the brain mean that can’t regulate their behaviour, and are less likely to make more rational decisions.
Teens have a harder time analysing the emotions of others, and are more likely to perceive anger and threat in others, where there may not be. They are more likely to have a ‘gut reaction’ to these ‘threats’ as well.
In a study where teenagers were shown pictures of adults with various facial expressions, which adults would normally interpret as emotions of fear or concern were often interpreted by teens as shock and anger.
Pruning of the Brain
There is also a process that occurs that is essentially like ‘pruning’ or a use it or lose it process of certain cells and connections. Choosing which habits are practised more regularly in this time is important, because for most people opting for the academic, sport or music sort of pathways rather than the video gaming pathways. The adolescent brain is very versatile and can adapt to the environment very well.
Having an immature frontal cortex also means their ability to perceive risk and consequences is quite low. Not wearing helmets, performing more daring moves on their skateboard or even having unprotected sex and drug taking are examples of this. Teens usually feel that the risk is outweighed by the reward in these instances.
It’s not that teens are dumb by any means, in fact they are at a peak time for learning and processing and making new pathways in their brain. They can be amazing at solving puzzles, memorising things and learning new tasks like languages and music, but can have difficulty with analysing emotions and correctly assessing consequences of risks.
Apart from zits, one of the other more well known problems that teenagers can struggle with is mood swings.
Thinking about how their brain develops, it’s a bit easier to understand how teenagers have a much harder time processing their emotions as well as accurately perceiving the emotions of others.
In addition to that, teens are also going through a time where they’re trying to discover their place in the world. A lot of teenagers report feeling frustrated because they’re being told to act like adults, but they’re not getting treated like adults.
It’s a hard time for parents as well, because the way that you would have dealt with your younger child’s problems is quite different to the way you would deal with teenage problems, and a lot of the time you’re in a position where you are being pushed away and you don’t even know what they’re upset about.
Depression can affect teenagers, with 5% of teens experiencing depression to such a degree that it warrants treatment. Thankfully with the way the brain is continually reprogramming itself during the teenage years it can be very responsive to interventions.
If you suspect your teenager has depression, there are a few things you can do:
- You can try to talk to them. If they’re not forthcoming with a general discussion, try asking more specific questions related to those indicators of depression
- Encourage them to talk to someone they feel comfortable with
- Talk to your doctor
- Seek counselling
- Or See a qualified natural therapist
Read the rest of the article here which goes into detail about how to reduce mood swings, and tips for a low GI, nutrient dense diet to support brain health and a balanced mood.