Adolescence Unplugged Part 1

Part One of a two-part series published in Spectrum magazine, this article explores what is happening in the adolescent brain.

How things have changed for our adolescents. Indeed the rapid changes that have happened for all educators in the last 5-10 years have been astounding. The new modern term for today’s young is that they are ‘digital natives’ — meaning they have developed abilities to manage many mediums simultaneously like mobiles, social media, online games and activities while being wired with earbuds in. Yes they can do many of these tasks very quickly and all at the same time BUT research is showing that these skills are not transferable to real life and the individuals who are doing these often are less effective when given opportunities to problem solve and use their thinking skills. Ouch!

Why are we so concerned about today’s Millennial adolescents?

  • 200-300% morbidity rate increase
  • Mental illness has increased among this age group
  • Huge increase in binge drinking/drug taking
  • More homeless than ever before
  • More 30-year-olds still at home than ever before!
  • Massive increase in violence among the young, especially amongst girls

Many adolescents struggle with problems of enormous magnitude. If we remember the key drivers of adolescence it can help us understand our interesting adolescents better.

  • Seeking autonomy and independence
  • Identity searching and experimenting with ‘who am I?’
  • Needing to belong outside of the family
  • Immature brain driving a mature looking body
  • Separation from parents – creating healthy distance
  • Forming relationships – deepening of friendships

These things are biologically wired into our adolescents as they venture down the bumpy ride from child to adult – no matter what culture or socio economic situation. Then, while all sorts of strange things are happening to their bodies, their brain does some huge changes!

“”The new knowledge about the teen brain shows us that adolescence offers perhaps a second chance – or at least an additional one – to unleash the enormous potential and possibilities that lie within a person’s brain and to shape positively that person’s social, emotional and intellectual development. It means that what happens during their adolescent years is very important and can have a considerable and long-lasting impact on their lives.” — Corbin, Barry (2008), Unleashing The Potential of the Teenage Brain: 10 Powerful Ideas. Corwin Press: USA.


1. Pruning — use it, or lose it.

There is a massive pruning that occurs in the brain during the early teenage years, anywhere up to 15 to 20%. Information that is used often is deemed important and becomes stronger and is easier to remember. Information that is not used often is deemed unimportant and is forgotten.

Parents and teachers know when this has occurred when monosyllabic grunts replace articulation in communication with many adolescents. This can be a very frustrating time for parents and adolescents, but it is simply a biological process, not an intentional choice by adolescents. Studies have found that as children reach puberty their ability to interpret and understand social situations and emotions in others can drop by up to 20%. What does this mean? This means that in the window of 12-15 when the brain does an automatic pruning, young adolescents often misread facial expressions and misinterpret body language that they could read much more competently before. They can lose organisational skills like remembering their sports clothes, keeping rooms tidy, completing homework, doing chores and generally managing them. This change causes many adolescents to feel stupid, useless and incompetent. Many struggle getting school work done and they struggle enormously with motivation and staying on purpose. This coincides with a drop in short-term memory of up to 20% around the same time and so losing things and forgetting things is very common and really frustrating!


2. Overproduction of dendrites and synaptic connections.

There will be zillions of synaptic connections in an adolescents brain by the end of adolescence. When neurons communicate with each other, synaptic connections are created and learning occurs. The more you engage in an activity, the more dendrites grow and the stronger the synaptic connections become.

Adolescents are acquiring learning and knowledge at an unprecedented rate. This window is a vitally important window in the journey of human development. Learning, especially that based on real experiences, will happen faster than any other stage in life other than the first two years of life. The massive increase in dendrites will allow an adolescent to master new skills like playing a guitar, taking up a new sport, learning a new language, doing a triple flip on a skateboard or even learning to cook much faster than normal. However, if they are not engaged in their education or in positive pursuits like music, reading, sport, creative arts or practical skill development, they may be learning things that can impede their development for the rest of their lives. Those who are spending their time watching TV, playing video games, binge drinking, smoking pot, eating junk food or spending way too much time on social media will struggle to break those unhelpful patterns.

 “The brain’s ability to acquire and retain new information as well as the reliability and degree of connectivity of the brain’s neural pathways are largely influenced by the quality, type, and number of experiences that teenagers receive. — Bahr, Nan & Pendergast, Donna (2007), The Millennial Adolescent. ACER Press: Victoria.


3. Myelination — insulating the neurons and synaptic connections.

This is the final stage of brain development and involves the thickening of the white matter or myelin on the axons. This is the process of insulating the neurons and synaptic connections, which allows more connections and more efficient usage. What this means is that the quality of thinking improves, and at around 22-24 years of age, the prefrontal lobe (the executive function of the brain) will be mature enough to ensure that improved decision-making can take place. Now that’s a bit late for many students who struggled in our classrooms. Before the prefrontal lobe has matured it is difficult to manage impulses, delay gratification, plan for the future and understand the process of choice + consequences = experience! Adolescents can often repeat dangerous activities or repeat poor behaviour in our schools because the brain is unable to learn from these experiences. This requires a mature brain!

4. Growth of the Amygdala — Adolescents rely more on the emotional part of their brain.

Adolescents use the amygdala to interpret the same information that an adult uses with the frontal lobe. This is why they have such difficulty with misreading social situations, communicating with others, emotional vulnerability and impulse control. It also influences such aspects as hunger, thirst, sleep, sexual response and hormone production. The limbic system is particularly affected by the great surge of sex hormones. They feel emotions much more intensely than before or after adolescents and often have difficulty managing intense feelings. Many struggle with boredom as it’s brain antagonist, and in our classrooms we see adolescents struggling with disengagement in all sorts of creative ways.

In our classrooms, we need to be aware of how to support our fledgling adults by creating safe environments that reduce stress, have supportive teachers who REALLY understand the biological changes that are occurring and who provide consistent fair guidance on how to manage their school lives as successfully as possible.

Areas to be mindful of in high schools:

  • Organisational skills — create innovative ways of reminding students of deadlines
  • Dopamine yearning — risk-taking is to reduce boredom
  • Decision-making support — remember they are often unable to think well
  • WIIFM? (What’s in it for me?)— ensure relevance
  • Environment & belonging — create connectedness for all adolescents
  • Technology/ wired world — create clear boundaries
  • Managing boredom/challenge — avoiding too much challenge in classroom
  • Poor communicators — reassure them it will get better
  • High vulnerability/high potential — promote inclusive caring school culture
  • Massive stress — poor sleep, massive invisible challenges are very real to adolescents.

Adolescents are more at risk than ever before because of the extra challenges of the modern world. Their enormous vulnerability comes from within — the massive growth of negative thinking, self-criticism and crushing self-doubt while comparing themselves to others, often idols who have been airbrushed or filtered to present an unreal image, is persistent and continuous!

They will do anything to belong and if things are tough at home, they are more at risk of finding people who are also feeling the same way and then to beat boredom, they can get up to mischief. Every adolescent feels vulnerable, confused and damaged and flawed at times, no matter how well they may be performing academically, artistically or sporting wise. We must step forward with more understanding and compassion while our students navigate a confusing world. They will learn better when they feel safe, accepted and heard — even with a head full of blue hair, and body piercings.

In my work with adolescents over 40 years I have met some amazing young people who, despite enormous challenge and adversity, have not only survived their bumpy ride to adulthood, they have flourished and realised their enormous potential. So often they share what helped and so often it was something quite small — a word of encouragement, a hug, a safe bed for a couple of weeks — from someone who cared about them.


Part 2 explores adolescent stressors and the role lighthouses play in adolescents lives

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