Earlier this week M and I went to a talk on adolescent brain development, specifically that of boys. It was so interesting, and explained so much, that I thought I would share the key points with you here. If you are a mother or a father or a grannie/ grandpa/ aunt/ uncle/ sister/ friend of a young lad and you are wondering where your lovely pre-teen child went and where all this strange/ challenging and sometimes disruptive behaviour is coming from this might help.
Firstly, testosterone production increases 10 times during adolescence and with each fresh injection of it the brain structure of boys changes permanently. It makes them tired to the point of lethargy and can reduce their behaviour to that last experienced when they were toddlers (which was the last time they had an equivalent shot of testosterone surging through their system and such a change in brain structure). But this is a really important aspect of male development because too little testosterone is way more damaging in the long term than too much.
Secondly, adolescence is the period when brains transform and reorganise. They lose some neural pathways and create others. This process completes much more quickly in girls, which is why they appear to be more mature than boys of the same age. Their brains are simply more efficient at processing information at this stage.
Boys brains differ from girls brains in two key ways. In girls, the bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the brain is large and fires constantly, enabling girls to access and utilise information gathered from either or both hemispheres. This is why women and girls are such good multi-taskers - they can literally connect up the two halves of their brain and process info received from a number of different sources and (as importantly) implement it through frontal lobe activity.
In boys this nerve bundle is much smaller and fires less frequently, which is why men and boys often struggle if asked to do more than one thing at a time. It is also why they don't notice peripheral detail in the way girls do and can easily miss subtle things, such as an awareness of other people's emotional states or what colour jacket someone was wearing that evening. Girls tend to be better at noticing small details because of the way their brains are developed. But this single-mindedness of boys is a tremendously useful thing and not one to berate them with- far better to find a way of letting them see what a useful tool it can be.
Boys focus when they are set on doing one thing is absolute, which is why when they are watching tv, reading or playing on the computer they genuinely do not hear you when you are telling them tea is ready or asking them to do their homework.
Boys need simple precise instructions in order to flourish- ask them to do too much, and their brains become overloaded and they sink into primitive responses to deal with the feeling of stress that ensues.
Of the three significant sections in the brain, the primitive brain is most active in infants (as you'd expect), the emotional brain is most active in teenagers and the frontal lobe (responsible for common sense type actions) is most active in girl teenagers. Modern scans show all of this in action.
In addition to this, a section of the brain called the amygdala which has a key role in hormone production, sex drive and emotional responses is much much larger in boys than girls, to the point that in women it is virtually un-noticeable. So boys get a lot of their information this way.
What this means is that boys, particularly when under stress or if overloaded with information, process information downwards from the emotional brain into the primitive brain and that is why you get the aggressive response that so often characterises boys reactions to difficult or frustrating situations.
It takes them a long time to come down from this, so if they do blow a fuse, going after them and trying to talk to them soon after won't work because their brain and nervous system are still in the primitive mode. To reconnect with a boy you have to give him time on his own to calm and settle, and then talk rationally to him and encourage him to think calmly, which kicks the frontal lobe into action.
The expression we heard more than anything in regard to helping boys cope was 'coach, don't lecture.' And this is because boys have to learn how to use the frontal lobe (a process ongoing until they are in their 20s/ 30s). To help them achieve this, we as parents need to encourage them to do things for themselves calmly, which means that they create the pathways in the brain associated with the specific action or task, which then makes it much easier for them to remember and repeat it next time without descending into the primitive brain for answers. Helping them work out what is the most important of a group of tasks and then showing them how to complete it is the best way to achieve this kind of frontal lobe activity.
Girls on the other hand, process info received in the emotional brain upwards through the frontal lobe and are therefore better able to apply rationale and sequential thinking as a result. They are better at thinking forward to consequences of actions because of this, and this is also why their organisational skills are so much better. An example is the way girls lay their uniforms out the night before, pack their school bags and get everything ready they'll need for the next day. Boys are often so overwhelmed by the list of things to do that they just don't do any of it and then get grumpy next day because there is too much to do in one go, so instead they down tools and descend into primitive reflex and get angry or frustrated.
Simplify, simplify, simplify is the key with boys.
Spatial awareness is also not good in boys at this age because they are growing so fast that the nerve endings don't always keep up with the extent of their bodies. This makes them prone to knocking things over because they can't always judge distance well and how they fit into spaces. Our middle son is incredibly clumsy and is also shooting up at the moment, so this has helped me understand why he is forever knocking pots off surfaces and breaking things!
There were a few other key points, such as there is no value in getting deep, meaningful and emotional with boys because their brains won't process that kind of information and they feel uncomfortable and switch off. Instead, you need to remain calm, rational, sensible, logical and help them to work out practically the important bits for themselves. They also need lots of praise, but focused and realistic, so for eg if they're good at maths celebrate it, but if they haven't tidied their room don't tell them that's ok or praise them for it!
Boys don't always want physical contact with their mums in particular at this age so you shouldn't force them. They question everything you say and do because it is at this age that their brains are starting to have the capacity to evaluate instead of simply accept information they are given- this helps keep them safe in adulthood because they are learning how to evaluate and separate good advice from bad, so it's a really crucial stage and not one you should take as a personal rejection of your own wisdom- essentially, they are learning to think for themselves which is a hugely important skill. Natural consequences to poor behaviour are also good teachers, as long as the consequence is reasonable. A good example is missing the school bus and getting a detention or a telling off for being late. And they can be utterly horrible to younger siblings who's brains are actually working better than theirs at this point. All of this is natural, normal, healthy, if exasperating to live with sometimes!
I hope that's all made sense and that somewhere in all of that there are some useful bits of info. We found it hugely useful and gained some good insights into why our lads behave the way they do at times and also how to help them through those times. The teacher also said boys are sweet, kind, gentle, disarmingly honest and straightforward, that they are less in need of peer approval than girls, less bitchy, easier in many ways to live with, quick to anger but also quick to smile. I wouldn't change ours for the world.