BY ALISON CHURCH
Mr. Starkweather, Benicia High School’s AP Psychology teacher, recently gave a presentation on the often misunderstood mind of an adolescent. Gathered in the audience were parents who were eager to better understand the complex emotions of their children. Mr. Starkweather began with a general review of the structure of the human brain. All brains develop in a particular order. The primitive brain controls the basics, such as heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and digesting foods; the mid-brain controls memory and the central nervous system; the frontal lobes control complex thinking and decision making; most importantly, the executive function controls working towards goals, seeing the consequences of actions, and suppressing urges. Mr. Starkweather delivered the shocking news that teenagers do not develop executive functioning until they are around 25 years old. This means that while the stereotypes of teenagers rebelling, making life changing mistakes, and having emotional breakouts are harsh, these acts aren’t exactly in their control. Parents often forget that their children’s brains don’t fully develop until their mid twenties, which is an important factor to keep in mind when judging their children for a lack of judgement.
There are two major phases of wiring in the brain. By the time a person is three years old, some regions of their brain have tripled or doubled in size. However, the brain is tremendously “pruned back” at age 8, which is the process of eliminating extra synapses in the brain when they are no longer needed. The second huge burst of pruning occurs during puberty/adolescence. According to healthline.com, “Researchers have recently learned that the brain is more “plastic” and moldable than previously thought. Synaptic pruning is our body’s way of maintaining more efficient brain function as we get older and learn new complex information.” The more we encounter, learn, and feel, the more our brains mold with experience. What one learns and does in life physically alters and rewires what the brain thinks and looks like. No two people develop the different regions of their brain at the same pace. No two people store/interpret the same information in the same way. Every person has their own story that has shaped how their brain processes emotion and life around them. That is why it is best to keep an open mind towards not just all adolescents, but people of any age. There are multiple ways of being intelligent, but many of these ways cannot be tested through an IQ test. Parents should keep an open mind that many of these talents and traits are buried deep within their children, or are perhaps demonstrated in an “unconventional” way that doesn’t fall under the category of being “book smart.”
During adolescence, the brain is ruled by the amygdala, which is the region of the brain that processes emotion. While the amygdala can often be taxing and painful on the mind, it can create beautiful, emotional memories that last for a lifetime. Mr. Starkweather advised the parents that children are “sponges for learning;” they look to their parents for wisdom. Adolescents experience the fifth out of eight psychological development stages called “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” These eight stages take place between the ages of 12 and 19, and were coined by psychologist Erik Erikson. During this stage teenagers develop fidelity, which involves faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support. They explore their identity and sense of self by experimenting with their sexual and occupation roles in society. From these explorations, they form their sense of identity. However, if these role confusions persist, individuals are likely to doubt their place in society. Often, parents pressure their kids into a certain identity. They insist on molding their path and their life for them, instead of letting them choose their own way. This pressure often leads to rebellion and a negative perception of themselves.
Before the presentation, Mr. Starkweather asked his students to write one thing they wished their parents knew about the challenges they face in adolescence. At the end of the presentation, he showed these anonymous quotes to the students’ parents. Below are some of the quotes presented to the audience.
- “I don’t show it anymore, but I still love you”
- “I want parents to know how hard it is for teenagers to always be 100% content with life. Having a safe environment to go home to after an 8 hour day of stress is so important to us.”
- “Adolescence is where you are expected to act like adults, but are treated like kids.”
- “Your approval means more to your child than you think, so please please please put your kids needs above your own and love them with everything in you.”
- “How hard it is to come out.”
- “The pressure we face growing up as teenagers is so much harder than how it used to be. The fear of not being able to succeed in the world is real and you always asking us what we want to be when we grow up is not helping.”
- “When we mess up, we’re a lot harder on ourselves than most people, and we don’t really need more people being hard on us.”
- “That my best isn’t always good enough”
- “I have much more stress than I choose to show you because I don’t want to worry you, but you take it as I don’t have any stress and I don’t care about anything”
These quotes revealed the buried, emotional vulnerability of the student’s minds. They shifted parent’s perspectives, and left them feeling that they could better communicate and interact with their kids if they remembered to keep an open mind. In the end, the presentation showed that understanding your parents or your kids comes down to stepping into the other’s shoes, and understanding that everyone’s brain is at different stages and therefore has different priorities in life; and right now, teenagers are overwhelmed on a daily basis by emotions, stress, conflict, and their yet to be decided role in the world.