The Middle School Years: Brain Matters
Ask the Experts by Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW
Q: I have one child in middle school and another about to begin middle school. I have seen behavioral changes in both of them and don’t know what is “normal” for this age. What would be helpful for me to understand about these middle school years?
A: The pre-teen years bring enormous cognitive, social and emotional changes for early adolescents – some welcomed and others quite challenging.
These changes can be complex, sometimes making the child we love unrecognizable. Though there are many issues influencing pre-teens, ranging from peer relationships to technology, one of the most significant is how their brains are developing. Just around the time our kids are entering middle school, their brain undergoes a period of rapid development and growth. They have an increased ability to do work, their intellectual interests expand, and their capabilities continue to develop.
Despite cognitive leaps, however, there are many critical brain functions which are undeveloped – this during a period when kids are moving towards increased independence, greater challenges, more complex social relationships and significant risk taking. Consider these issues in your efforts to support your adolescent as they negotiate the middle school years:
- Our brains develop from back to front, and our prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until our early 20s. This portion of the brain is responsible for organizing information and making decisions, problem solving, planning and strategizing, anticipating consequences, managing impulses and regulating mood.
- The teenage brain does not process emotions the same way the adult brain does, actually reading emotions through a different area of the brain. Their emotional responses, which take place in the limbic area of the brain, are basically undeterred by judgment or reasoning, which is later developed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
- Emotional pain may seem stronger because reactions are more instinctive, rather than grounded in logic, and young teens have a diminished ability to regulate their emotions. Additionally, research shows that pre-teens and teens have difficulty reading social and facial cues accurately, which can exacerbate an already strong emotional response.
- Our brain practices and rehearses new skills when we sleep. Unfortunately, our kids need over 9 hours of a sleep a night, yet they average closer to seven. This issue only becomes worse as they move into high school and it has a significant impact on their ability to understand new things, regulate mood, and react appropriately.
Understanding the developing teenage brain gives us a context for observing their decisions or behavior without judgment. As our children continue to assert their independence, our patience, influence and guidance remain critical. Parents provide kids with the opportunity to talk through and make good decisions, find creative and expressive outlets, explore healthy risk taking, develop empathy, and provide structure for good sleep, down time and self care.
Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a therapist in private practice in Grosse Pointe. She works with children, adolescents and families and can be reached at 313.408.2180 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Garvey is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals.
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