Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Brain Structure Of Adolescent Boys- an interesting talk

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.

CT :-)

14 comments:

  1. That sounds such an interesting talk and I wish I had learnt this when mine were younger. Some of it made me smile as I recognised some of these traits in my son and daughter.
    As I was driving home there was an article on Radio Solent about how wonderful the volunteer shepherds are on your common did you hear it?
    Sarah x

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    1. It's such a good thing to be able to access this kind of info- it helped us understand a lot about why our boys behave the way they do at times.

      I listened to the article about the sheep on the radio as I was driving to college. It was funny hearing them talk about us all! :-)

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  2. Like Sarah I wished I had learned this when my son and daughter were younger,

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    1. It's invaluable stuff and largely down to modern scanning techniques that allow us to see brain activity working. It fascinates me.

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  3. Fascinating.. although there are some things I see in reverse. Mike is the one who is totally prepared, and me the one who gets overwhelmed with all the things to do and goes off in a grumpy huff.

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    1. These are general trends in brain structure and to an extent we will all vary as we all have frontal lobes, emotional and primitive brain areas. It sounds like Mike has good connections through his frontal lobe and your primitive brain connection is perhaps a bit stronger (I think mine is too!).

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  4. Fascinating and very informative post CT - like others have said I wish I had known some of this when my son and daughter were younger - so much now fits into place.

    Although I can see some of it in reverse too as I have a tendency to get totally absorbed in a task and totally switch off and don't hear the family which makes me very unpopular at times!!!!

    Great post thanks so much for sharing :)

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    1. I guess it's very easy as a parent to be frustrated with your children's behaviour when you evaluate it through a mature brain. What this talk did was help us evaluate behaviour based on the stage of development of the kids' brains. Hugely useful and I'm really pleased we went. It'll come in handy with your grand children one day I'm sure!! :-)

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  5. I'm cutting and pasting this as soon as I've finished writing this comment. Brilliant stuff - thanks CT!

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    1. I thought you'd be interested Em. Worth looking out for anything similar in terms of brain development talks when OB starts secondary school.
      It gives you tools to cope which are sooo helpful and also makes you realise it's all normal behaviour- every single other parent in the hall was nodding when one or the other of us offered up an example of the way our boys react/ behave- it was very reassuring xx

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  6. Fascinating, CT. I wonder whether all this research will one day lead to boys and girls always being taught separately and in different ways (although of course mixing together in class teaches them other things altogether!)

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    1. I don't think they should be segregated in terms of classrooms, but I do think there should be different teaching styles/ tasks set for boys and girls. Hopefully our education system will catch up with the results of these studies before long...it might put an end to homework frustration for one thing! :-)

      ps- I watched the King Alfred prog with Michael Wood last night and thoroughly enjoyed it- brought back so many happy memories of my degree. I thought he was excellent- just wish he could have also presented the research 'search for Alfred' filmed in Winchester, instead of Neil Oliver who seems to have a strangle-hold on all things historical when it comes to presenting at the moment!!

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  7. Rest assured this research is reaching the classroom and most teachers I know are trying to work different teaching styles into their lessons to accommodate the different ways boys and girls learn. It is fascinating stuff, especially when you can see it in practise. However, when a teacher also has to take into account that their class of 30 plus students also consists of students with English as a second and sometimes third language, students on the autistic spectrum, students with behavioural needs, and emotional needs and physical needs, ones who are dyslexic and dyspraxic and are streets behind or streets in front of their peers, and ALL these things must be taken into account because OFSTED will tell you that you are a rubbish teacher if you don't, it is no surprise that lots are leaving the profession burnt out shadows of their former selves. And there I shall desist before I go on a 'teacher rant!'

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    1. That's good to hear D. I wish the schools would advertise the fact a bit more! And I wish the Govt would disband Ofsted and come up with a more useful way of checking standards :-)

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x