The teenage brain is both fascinating and misunderstood. It remains difficult to comprehend – especially for the parents of teenagers – that although the young man or woman we see standing in front of us looks like a fully functioning human being; they are in fact living with an underdeveloped brain. No wonder they can’t string two sentences together and make a cup of tea at the same time.
The Teenage Brain as Seen From a Parent’s Brain.
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As the parent of two teenagers aged 16 and 13, I have tried on countless occasions to second guess what my son or daughter is thinking at any given time.
What their worries are. What excites them. I
have observed them, brooding, staring out of the car window – silent. Comparing it to that of my own mature (ish) worries, I have probed, reacted and assumed. Only to find that I was barking up the wrong tree.
They weren’t thinking about whether or not the language feature sibilance would be present in their upcoming exam. They were just wondering if Justin Bieber’s voice is auto-tuned.
Since announcing to our two teenagers that we would be upping sticks, throwing our lives into a 25L backpack and travelling around the world for a year with them, I have been second guessing as to what their teenage brains were thinking. I tend to assume that my teenagers (16 and 13) must share my enthusiasm for our random, up and coming world adventure. Surely, they too must lie awake at 3oclock in the morning and worry about which train to take from Bejjing and whether or not we will be able to fly our drone over the Great Wall Of China? Don’t they toss and turn over the weather in Nepal, or wonder whatever happened to that woman who trained gorillas in Rwanda – was she eaten?
Of course, when prodded at the dinner table they tell us what we want to hear – if it means that they can get away five minutes earlier and get back to watching little lies on Netflix, they say they are excited. That it is going to be cool. They ask – again – if there will be any wifi.
But I needed to know what it was they are they were really thinking.
So, I did what homeschooling parents do best. I wrote a questionnaire. I left it in their rooms for the day and asked them to fill out the answers as honestly as they could. Ten questions on how they perceived this year-long world adventure that we are about to embark on.
But, before I show you what their answers were, let me briefly fill you in on what I have learned in a recent speed lesson on the teenage brain. Please excuse my pigeon explanations of the most complex organ in the human body; I’m just trying to relay it to you as I see it.
What’s Going on in That Teenagers Brain?
The brain develops from back to front. The front part being the last to develop fully. The brain is made up of white and grey matter. The grey matter stores all the information that we are bombarded with on a daily basis, and the white matter connects it all to the rest of the brain. Think of the white matter as the messenger.
Grey matter matures between the ages of 11 and 12.
The white matter is a bit slower. It doesn’t completely develop until the early twenties.
Meaning, that the teenage brain isn’t physically fully connected.
Because of this lack of fully formed white matter, the teenage brain is unable to process information that enables them to look at the entire picture.
The last part of the brain to come to the party is the prefrontal cortex lobe. This is the part of the brain that enables attention span (no comment) and motivation (are you EVER going to cut the grass?) The lazy little frontal lobe also limits the teenager’s ability to think ahead. This may explain why, when you ask your daughter which raincoat she will take for her upcoming trip to New York in December, she will look at you with a glazed expression and ask if you’ve seen the green hairband that she was wearing yesterday.
Dopamine. Dopamine is a risk and rewards chemical within the brain. We all have it. Although lower In Teenagers, this chemical, is more intensely released. (Think of a teenagers Dopamine as a short black as opposed to the parent’s latte) I LOVE Dopamine. It’s a happy chemical. But teenagers love it more. If they think they will be rewarded for doing something, no matter how small, they will eagerly do it. (Cut the grass, and I’ll nip to the shop to buy you snickers)
Novelty, or trying new things can trigger dopamine to be released because the teenage brain is looking for the reward at the end of it.
This is fantastic news for parents who are keen to involve their teenagers in any new adventure. They will be up for it. They will be there. They will ride that elephant through a burning jungle and still come out texting. This is the Dopamine effect. (Just remember, you will also have to ride Nellies sister, following right behind to make sure they don’t fall off)
The Cons to the Teenage Brain Not Being Fully Developed and Why This May Affect Your World Travel Plans.
Knowing what we know about the teenage brain helps us to be a little more empathetic. It’s not their fault. Honest.
Unable to think too far ahead. (Might be tricky when packing clothes)
Unable to see the larger picture. (Yes, we are eating beans on toast again, but that is so you can zip wire in India.)
Short attention span. (Really? Another temple? What time do you think we will be leaving?)
And The Pro’s…
Teenagers love to try new things if they believe there will be a reward at the end of it. This doesn’t mean we have to bribe them or spoil them. Just throw them $10 and a Snickers bar, and they will be happy. Even better, tell them how proud you are of them. And then give them the $10.
Teenagers love to seek out new experiences and take risks. Thanks to the teenage brain not yet being fully developed and so not having turned into the boring old rational adult brain that we know and love so well. (Let’s go around the world! Yay!)
Add to this the fact that the teenage brain is susceptible to social and emotional information and this is the perfect time in a teenagers life to introduce world issues through travelling the wider world.
I think the pros far outweigh the cons.
Here are the 10 questions that I put to both of them, and their answers.
My 10 Questions Put to the Teenage Brain About Travelling Around the World:
1: What did you think when you were first told about the trip?
Sonny (16) – I was surprised as it was so out of the blue. I was scared, worried and excited all at the same time.
Tessa (13) – At first I was excited, but then I thought about my friends and my favourite foods. And my comfy bed.
2: What were you worried about?
Sonny – That we wouldn’t come back.
Tessa – That I couldn’t have my phone to contact my friends.
3: What were you excited about?
Sonny – Seeing all our family again and seeing all the sights in the world that I’ve only read about. Coming back.
Tessa – Seeing family and going to Disney Land.
4: Did you have any initial fears?
Sonny – I was/am scared of going to the jungle. I hate all insects, especially spiders.
Tessa – That I wouldn’t be able to sleep well and that someone might kidnap me.
5: What did your friends say?
Sonny – They didn’t want me to leave them, but they also said how lucky I was to be doing it.
Tessa – They didn’t want me to go. They said I would be a different person when I came back and that I would forget them.
5: You are leaving in 2 weeks. What are you looking forward to the most?
Sonny – Going to new countries. Seeing new things that I never even knew about.
Tessa – Going to America and England. Trying new foods, going out of my comfort zone and meeting new people. Cheap clothes, seeing snow and ice skating in NYC.
6: What are you scared about?
Sonny – I’m scared that one of my cats will die while I’m away. I’m afraid that my friends will forget me.
Tessa – I’m scared of getting sick and of food poisoning. Of seeing kids begging and of being offered drugs. I’m also scared of getting lost.
7: What do you think will be the best country?
Sonny – Japan. For the food and history.
Tessa – England, and America because of my family.
8: And the worst?
Sonny – I’m sure I will like them all, but I suppose India because it is hot dirty and very poor.
Tessa – India. The population is massive. It is dirty, and people will steal stuff. I don’t want to see thin and dying cats and dogs.
9: What do you hope to gain from this trip?
Sonny – An education of the world I live in and experience first hand the different struggles and luxuries that people have.
Tessa – To learn new things about history. I want to ride an elephant. To see how life looks out of the box and to learn a new language.
10: How has your mum been over the past few months in planning this trip? (dreaded asking this but needed to know!)
Sonny – Busy, stressed and excited! She is the one that has convinced me that I will enjoy it as she talks it up so much. (No pressure there then)
Tessa – Busy and sometimes grumpy (Me? Never.) because there is so much to do. Quite a few arguments and less attention. She has done well considering she hasn’t got much help, and she has the nerve to take us around the world and out of school.
Well, some of the answers were quite a shock but knowing how the teenage brain functions helped me to understand why they answered the way they did. Come on though…riding an elephant? Gumpy? Neglected? Oh well. I did ask for the truth.
What I Have Learned About The Teenage Brain.
Knowing the basics of how the teenage brain works have helped me immensely when reading their answers. The big picture, not being able to see too far ahead, an irrational fear of their friends forgetting them. But at the same time, knowing that they are up for an adventure.
We tend to underestimate our teenagers. They are often labelled as lazy, surly and reckless. Teenage boys, in particular, get a hard time for this one. I suppose we would be reckless too if one part of our brain was still at the factory being made.
As We Travel The World Together, I will Try To Remember What I Have Learned.
I will try to remember that before I go flying off the handle because they would rather look at the saved youtube video of the cat dancing to Elvis than look at Buddha’s tooth, that this is because of a short attention span. (And because the cat makes them laugh and Buddhas tooth is boring).
Furthermore, I will try to remember what I have learned when they plead to go on the flying fox across Jodhpur – even though they are only wearing crocs that might fly off – that is because the dopamine chemical is kicking in. It will make a fantastic video that they will put on their snapchat story.
Lastly, I will try to remember, that when I’m lying on a beach in Sri Lanka for three hours and hear the ever-present drone of “I’m bored. What is there to do?” I will smile sweetly and remind myself that the prefrontal cortex lobe is the one to blame for this short attention span. And I will be a good Mummy and say nothing.
Or I might offer a reward for walking over to the bar and getting me another cocktail.
I would love you to leave me a comment on what you notice about your teenagers after reading this post. Do your teenagers differ from mine? Would your teenagers be up for world travel? What is the biggest difference between boys and girls when they pass through teenage years? Leave a comment below and don’t forget to share this post with someone who has teenagers