A Brain Under Construction


by Danelle Spence



Teenagers can really seem crazy at times. They aren’t. They can appear to wig-out, not make sense or lose-it over the simplest of things. But they aren’t crazy. They are going through some serious brain reconstruction, reconfiguring and refurbishing. It used to be thought that teenagers go through significant hormonal surges, but we now know it’s the unpredictable and emotional changes are a result of two things: pruning and myelination. Estrogen and testosterone shifts do happen. But it is the brain changes that need the most attention:

Pruning: This is the teen brain getting rid of things it doesn’t need, hasn’t used or the brain feels, no longer serves a purpose. The brain has so many neuro-connections that is needed to get rid of things. Essentially, it is too full. So it must prune itself – as an arborist does to a tree. This is why we see that one day, your teen will want to become an environmentalist; the next day, they are throwing coffee cups out the window. This ‘craziness’ is a result of their brain restructuring itself. Don’t be alarmed (but do pay attention).

Myelination: This is when the neuro-connections that are used, practiced and rehearsed get a fatty ‘coating’ over the synapsis, This helps the electrical impulses of the brain move more quickly, more automatic and with more efficiency. Example: when we drive home and realize we didn’t really need to pay too much attention to know where to go. This automatic path is considered to be myelinated.

The above brain processes are super important in the teen years. This is also why it is the most important developmental time (more than ever!) to learn, practice and repeat healthy patterns, so their brain can ‘myelinate’ them. To learn healthy strategies for wellness, self-care, emotional regulation, etc. They can transfer these skills into adulthood. Examples include: learning good sleep etiquette, learning how to speak up for themselves, learning how to remember their appointments on their own, learning how to be vulnerable and ask for what they need, etc., etc.

This is also the time to un-learn bad habits so they can ‘prune’ them right-out-of-their-brains. Ok, not so simple, but the plasticity and flexibility of the adolescent brain is the perfect time to create healthy, life-long patterns. So even though there are times when you want to do things for them, or dismiss things as ‘just being a teenager’, try to be mindful of the myelination and pruning that is occurring in their very influential teenage brain.

Another real-life example? I like 90’s heavy metal ballads. I like to say – as someone that is obsessed with brain science – that my brain was ‘myelinated’ at a vulnerable age, to enjoy this genre of music. Hence, why I still like it as an adult.  This could be a poor excuse to enjoy bad music. Or it could be NEUROSCIENCE. I prefer the latter.

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About the Author

Danelle Spence

Danelle Spence is a Registered Psychologist with a passion for helping teens effectively manage emotional distress and helping their parents’ understand the complex and developing teenage brain.

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