Teen Babies – Brain Launch



I could end with that word and many knowing parent heads would bob up and down with understanding and reminiscence. In contrast, the heads of Baby parents are stock-still, eyes unblinking. They know about adolescence in theory, but not in practice – therefore they don’t really think it will happen to them. Endless hours of careful schooling, cajoling, disciplining, refining, exposing and pacing, will steel their child from the ravages of erratic teen behavior. Their Baby will be immune to those teen traits that they hear about. Their Baby will sail through the teen years and with every challenge, will hearken back to a parent’s wise counsel. Teenbaby will then follow said parental counsel and correct choices will prevail.

Allow me to explain why this is an unlikely scenario.

Brain development happens like body development with periods of quiescence mingled with intense growth. One of the most intense periods happens during puberty – especially in the 15-16-year-old age range. While the study of neurological underpinnings of the Teenbaby crazies yields something new every year, I will pass on what is currently believed by science.

Starting with the end of middle childhood and continuing into the twenties, the brain undergoes significant remodeling. There is a flurry of activity to reconfigure the child into the adult thinker. Some of the things going on in their noggin are:

Weeding the Garden, or Synaptic Pruning

Babies are born with about a hundred billion brain cells or neurons. The size of the brain reaches 90% of an adult at age six. Each neuron looks like a tree with a very long trunk and all the branches connect with other branches making a synapse – a tiny gap where the signal jumps across. As Baby grows and experiences the world, some of those connections are used frequently and others are not – and may begin to waste. Pruning eliminates unused pathways and allows for the well-used ones to become stronger. In addition, the brain greases up (provides a special coating) the well-used pathways so thoughts can run along them at lightening speed.


The Bloom of Seeking Novelty and Taking Risks

Adolescence is when the brain is most sensitive to the substance dopamine, a neurotransmitter that directly influences reward and pleasure. We used to think that Teenbaby did not realize he was mortal, but now we know better. They have more “eye on the prize” and are willing to accept greater risk in return for a reward. Adults, not so much. Ultimately, this trait enables Teenbaby to leave the parents and home in search of independence but also renders them more vulnerable to harmful consequences in the mean time. Unfortunately, it is this reward chemical, dopamine, that is affected with illicit drug and alcohol use. The remodel can be permanently affected and the resulting structure lacking sense and order.

Building the Fences – Control through Executive Function Development

Where are we without a leader? Without someone to hold workers accountable, everyone just does what they want when they want. Bosses serve useful purposes. They remind every one of their specific duty and with the big picture in mind, corral the workers so the business runs for maximum output. The prefrontal cortex is the boss – and it is what makes us human. We have the ability to bite our tongue, control our anger and defer a pleasure because this area of the brain filters and directs – and suppresses those centers that would have us respond with raw rage. With teens, the Executive function development lags behind those busy independence and novelty-seeking parts of the brain. You get the picture.

“Let’s go get our ____ tattooed .” “Let’s see what happens if we ______.” “I’ll bet you can’t ____. “

With Executive Function out on an extended lunch, Novelty Seeker wins much of the time. Parental reminders, expectations and checks are essential to Teenbaby survival.

So think about what a house looks like during a remodel. Demolition – walls are coming down, dust is flying and the place is a mess.  However, amid the chaos, new and improved structures are appearing with updated wiring that allows faster and more comprehensive communication between rooms. That is why those Teenbabies can seem so very together one day and a disorganized mess the next. They are not comfortable in their own in-process brains.

“Should I do X or y or Z,” says Teenbaby brain. Or, should I do A like my mother wants me to?

img579Teenbaby brain has all channels wide open, with choice A being the least attractive because Teenbaby brain says that it is “other” generated and not “self” generated. Also, it is not a “new” or “unique” avenue so it is much less desirable. Teenbaby brain is searching for launch. So, Teenbaby brain will choose X, Y, or Z over A almost every time. Or, it will choose X on Monday, Y on Tuesday and Z on Wednesday. Think about how many persona’s a teen tries out during those years.

So we have conflict. Teenbaby is following the new options. Conflict is set up. Conflict is necessary to separate from the parent. In its extreme state, this conflict requires that Parent forcibly eject Teenbaby. There we go – Baby Launched.

The more likely scenario, however is for a multitude of lesser conflicts to arise – with both parties realizing that Teenbaby must leave Parent. And that if Parent has done a superb job, Teenbaby will leave and establish an independent life. Executive function takes over and an independent adult is born. Eventually, in an ideal world, all are happy with this situation. Parents are happy that the conflict is over, launch has occurred and Teenbaby is independent Adultbaby and deciding that Parents may have had a point after all.

Sometime after 25, (which, by the way, the average time the remodel job is finished) they get back together in a new and improved relationship. But the transition is hell. And almost no one is immune – because of developmental neurobiology, of course. And the human condition.



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