The adolescence stage of development is typically one of intense bodily growth and change. Neuroimaging research has demonstrated that the adolescent brain under-goes continued stages of maturation and synaptic pruning resulting in a more efficient brain. These changes continue into early adulthood and therefore make adolescence one of the most vulnerable stages of development. The pre-frontal cortex is the last area of the brain to develop and is engaged in processes called higher-order executive functions which include processes related to goal-planning, complex decision making and reasoning. The emotional brain is still under-development in adolescence and this immaturity is thought to contribute to some of the volatile behavior and irrational outbursts often witnessed in teenagers. The emotional brain is made up of the limbic system which centrally comprises the cerebellum, cingulate gyrus, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus (a sea-horse shaped structure) and the amygdala (which is a small, almond shape). All of these structures contribute to processes related to emotions, biological drives (e.g., eating, drinking, sexual arousal and behaviors) and the formation of long-term memories. The amygdala is considered to play a critical role in the unconscious reaction of stimuli while the hippocampus is involved in the long-term formation of memories and also their emotional attachment.
The profound changes occurring in the brain during adolescence can impact behaviour. Therefore what is important is guiding your teenager safely through this somewhat roller-coaster ride of a time. This is also the transition from dependence to independence and learning to become responsible requires delegation and communication between parents and teenagers. An adolescent with ADHD may be particularly vulnerable because of their increased tendency for emotional instability, engaging in risky behaviours and impulsivity. Teenagers often act without fully thinking about the consequences of their actions. Most parents will appreciate that this critical period requires increased patience, mentoring, guidance and a spoonful of tolerance! What pays off for a lot of parents and teenagers is a keen interest and commitment to a wonderfully distracting activity such as soccer/football, dance, horse-riding or similar. These activities also detract from some of the more negative influences out there in the social world. Strong, positive role models are also of great benefit during this stage of development. Boys, in particular, who are living with just mum may require additional mentoring from strong, significant others during the adolescent stage. A book by Steve Biddulph called “Raising boys” is recommended in advance of this developmental stage.
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