HUNTINGDON, PA - January 8, 2012 - Teenage boys can be an enigma to their mothers, who are often perplexed by the way their sweet young boys have seemingly morphed overnight into moody, narcissistic young teenagers.
A plethora of images fill a mother’s mind when considering her teenage son and his behaviors. Some of the images may be of laughing and talking together, enjoying time outdoors, or pleasant family time playing cards or board games. Other images may not be as positive.
These less than positive experiences, involving some recalcitrant behaviors, uncharacteristic outbursts, demands for more freedom and fewer rules, may not completely be the teen’s fault. In other words, his growing, developing brain may be at “fault”, but he as a person is not completely to blame. Recent research conducted on the development of the male and female brains, beginning in infancy and often continuing to age 20, have corroborated many psychiatrists’ (and parents’) previous assertions with physiological findings.
These findings may help parents to not only understand their teenage sons better, but also to advocate for the enhancement of education geared toward reaching both sexes more effectively. It may also make parents of teens feel less frustration and more empathy for their growing, often misunderstood, sons.
Many friends and colleagues have expressed confusion about the differences between their male and female children, especially during the teen years. Comments, such as “He is so immature compared to her,” and “He seems to be unable to control his anger at times, while she just cries,” are commonly heard in the parenting realm. Now, at least, the research has revealed valid, solid reasons for the sometimes churlish, impulsive behavior exhibited by our male offspring.
“Adolescence is a period of rapid changes. Between the ages of 12 and 17, for example, a parent ages as much as 20 years.” ~ author unknown.
The National Institute of Health released a report on “Male/Female Difference Offers Insight into Brain Development” stating “there are gender differences in the trajectory of gray matter maturation in adolescent girls and boys that may have lasting effects on the brain.” Male adolescent brains have more gray matter than female brains. Gray matter is sometimes called “thinking matter.”
However, developing female brains have more white matter, responsible for connecting various parts of the brain than their male counterparts. So, in spite of this seeming “advantage,” boys are actually at a disadvantage because the information acquired usually cannot be fully processed due to the inability of their brains to make adequate connections.
Perhaps the actual physiology of male and female teens’ brains is most revealing aspect of the studies. The cortex, which contains both gray and white matter, is the part of the brain responsible for thinking, perceiving, and processing language. More specifically, the prefrontal cortex, a portion of the brain right behind the forehead, is one of the last areas of the brain to mature in males. This part of the brain is necessary for “good judgment, controlling impulses, solving problems, setting goals, organizing and planning, and other skills that are essential to adults,” according to “The Amazing Adolescent Brain,” compiled by Dr. Linda Burgess Chamberlain, Ph.D., MPH.
In addition to the physiology of the brain, a teen’s gender and hormones affect his or her developing brain in myriad ways. It may also help you to understand why your son spends hours on videogames that involve more violence than you and your husband have allowed him to see in his short lifetime. In addition, you may now understand why your son grunts or mutters incomprehensible words while his fingers rapidly press buttons on his game controller.
Hormones contribute greatly to the differences in male and female brain development. The hippocampus, which helps to move newly acquired information into long-term storage in the brain, responds to the primary female hormone, estrogen. As a result, the hippocampus grows and matures much faster in teenage girls than in teenage boys. This cerebral advantage allows girls to do better in social settings and causes them to show emotions more freely than boys.
Conversely, the amygdala and the hypothalamus are affected by male sex hormones and, consequently, grow larger in teenage males. Both of these parts of the brain are involved in responding to frightening and/or dangerous situations. These brain functions are exhibited by boys’ greater enjoyment of physically challenging sports and being more aggressive in some settings than females.
It also may, in part, explain their need for excitement, whether literal or virtual. (Hence, those video games.) Researchers also contend that this aspect of brain development makes males less able to sit still for long periods of time. For that reason, males often learn better while moving around in a learning environment.
The greatest difference between the male and female adolescent brains, however, appears to be the delayed development of the prefrontal cortex.
Mark Weist, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina and the father of three boys and two girls, concurs that male brains take longer to mature.
“Compared to teenage girls, teenage males have less developed brain functions in the frontal lobe region, associated with more impulsive behavior and less careful processing of information.”
Unfortunately for males, brain development often continues into the early to mid-20s. This puts them at a higher risk for engaging in dangerous, superfluous behaviors that could cause them to make poor decisions. If drug or alcohol use is involved, brain development may also be adversely affected.
So how can parents and/or family members assist teenage boys though this difficult time? One thing that experts recommend is encouraging your son, family member, etc., to become actively involved in athletic endeavors, artistic activities (such as theatrical productions), and outdoor recreation. Being physically and mentally involved in activities that allow teens to move around while learning is especially beneficial to males. These kinds of activities are also both mentally and physically stimulating, so they aid in the development of the brain as well.
In addition, parents should also remember that because the prefrontal cortex is still developing in male teens, it is wise to give them simple instructions, rather than overwhelming them with information. Also, the information should be given in a step-by-step fashion.
It is helpful to give your teenager a planner to help him organize his homework and extra-curricular activities. Ask him to be responsible and listen to the teacher or coach’s instructions, then write the instructions in the planner. This will help to reinforce the information that has been conveyed to him.
Neuroscientists stress that both male and female teenagers are often sleep-deprived due to a biological tendency to become drowsy later at night than adults. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate teenagers’ tendencies to make poor decisions or to act impulsively. Parents should encourage their teenagers to get a minimum of nine hours of sleep per night. Getting extra sleep on weekends is also beneficial.
During the teen years of rapid growth and change, teenagers need family togetherness and ties that only you can give him or her. Family dinners and discussions are as important to his development into a person of good character and responsibility as any facet of his educational process.
“Even as kids reach adolescence, they need more than ever for us to watch over them. Adolescence is not about letting go. It’s about hanging on during a very bumpy ride,” according to Ron Taffel, renowned child development expert.
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