Do you need to avoid a teen brain “shutdown?”

You may have heard about the a recent study about teens' brains “shutting down” in response to criticism: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25338632

Teen girls had their brains scanned while they listened to a recording of their mother saying critical things. The result: a partial shutdown of sections of the brian that are involved with thinking logically, processing emotion, and seeing things from another person's point of view.

What does this mean? Something you probably already know. If all you do is criticize a child, they're going to stop listening. But this does not mean you should never be critical.

It's natural for kids to test boundaries, especially as teens. Sometimes you need to allow this. Even encourage it, so your child can develop independence and creativity. But we're talking neuroscience here, and so let's look at what is physically happening in the teen brain.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the human brain that enables us to think about the consequences in our actions. During the early teen years, it is like a thick jungle, with a tangled mass of synapses connecting neurons all over the place.

In the brain, the final stage towards adulthood is the severing of many of these connections. As many synapses are removed, the ones that remain grow stronger.

You know what this looks like on the outside. The child starts to consolidate his or her thinking patterns. Some talents begin to blossom and flourish, while other hobbies fall away. The young adult becomes more consistent in his or her behavior, develops more loyalty to friends, chooses specific music and favorite brands. He develops character.

Just as enzymes are busily pruning inappropriate and unnecessary synapses in the teenage prefrontal cortex, so certain behaviors need to be pruned away or redirected. As a parent, you can have a substantial impact on this process, and sometimes it takes a bit of mental force. Maybe an occasional neural “shutdown” isn't so bad.

All that this new research suggests is that you many have limited impact if you never use the carrot and only use the stick. Make sure you reward and encourage you child's natural interests, talents, and achievements.

But sometimes you need to put inappropriate behavior in check.

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