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Neural development

Neuroscience, the scientific study of the biology of the nervous system, has made great strides over the past decade in revealing the remarkable changes that occur in the brain during the second decade of life.

Contrary to long-held ideas that the brain was mostly grown-up (or ’fully cooked’) by the end of childhood, it is now clear that adolescence is a time of profound brain growth and change. The brain of an early adolescent differs measurably in anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology to that of a late adolescent. (Weinburfer, Elvevag, & Geidd 2005, cited in Jim Casey Youth Initiative, 2011, p. 20.)

The following table provides a summary of neuroscientific information that can inform our practice with young people.

Facts from neuroscience What does this mean? Implications for practice
The frontal lobes are the last part of the brain to develop fully. The frontal lobes govern reasoning, judgement and impulse control, while other areas (including emotion centres) develop earlier.

Adolescents will act unreasonably at times and explanations about decisions and consequences are unlikely to change their behaviour.

Young people will move between ‘emotional logic’ and ‘rational logic’.

This means we need to model and encourage thoughtfulness and problem solving.  

Dopamine levels shift during adolescence

Dopamine links action to reward (pleasure). During adolescence, dopamine is moved around in the brain and is triggered by different things.

Motivation lessens and things become boring, so new and risky behaviours are trialled in an effort to feel pleasure. Young people do things because they are dangerous. These risks are a normal part of developing a stronger sense of self, learning resilience and developing mastery.

Risk in a developmental context is different to risk in a child protection context.

Risk-taking behaviour is an expected part of adolescent development.

We can minimise risk by providing an underlying safety net and unconditional support.

Our job is to facilitate good judgement wherever possible, rather than taking choice away.

We need to avoid ultimatums where young people lose face if they have shown bad judgement.

Adolescence is a period of major structural change in the brain

Synapses (links between brain cells) are pruned away and some neurons (brain cells) are strengthened to speed them up.

As many as 30,000 synapses may be lost per second across the cerebral cortex.

Brain plasticity (the capacity for change and growth) means that the neural paths (thought patterns) that are used the most will survive.

Nurturing and attachment are just as important for young people as for babies and toddlers.

Positive regard, warmth and acceptance can change how a young person’s brain works. 

We need to prioritise establishing reliable relationships when planning services and support for young people.

If we cannot provide a stable living arrangement, we need to use other strategies like staying in touch, using youth worker support, coaching key family members and providing consistency in CSOs and support workers. 

The brains of boys and girls develop at a different rate

The fully formed brains of women and men are almost the same, but the rate of development is substantially different.

Girls reach the halfway point of brain development at 11 years of age and the brain is fully developed at 21–22.

Boys reach the halfway point at 15 and the brain does not finish developing until 30.

Generally, boys may struggle to verbalise and reflect; they will build relationships through activities rather than discussion.

Girls of the same age will usually be more able to discuss issues and articulate their needs.

We need to be flexible and be aware that:

  • girls and boys who are developmentally different to their peers will require a different approach.
  • boys and girls need access to a range of functional adult role models of both genders.

(Adapted from Jim Casey Youth Initiative, 2011 pp. 20–24.)

For those young people who have been in the care of Child Safety, the experience of transitioning to adulthood and navigating adolescence is further complicated by exposure to trauma and other early life adversaries, including exposure to alcohol and other substances in utero, and neglect. (McLean, 2016, p. 2) 

  • Effects of child abuse and neglect impact on the brain in the areas of social, psychological and cognitive development, and some effects persist throughout the entire life span.
  • The brains of young people in care may have been wired to expect violence, rejection, a non-supportive environment or sudden, arbitrary moves.
  • During adolescence, young people may react to earlier traumatic events, and the trauma may be experienced anew—resulting in the re-emergence of problems that seem to have been resolved.

Attention

If the core task of adolescence is to develop a strong sense of self, and the primary psychological effect of childhood trauma is to impair the sense of self, what does this mean for young people transitioning to adulthood? Puberty has been highlighted as an important time of neural plasticity.  In contrast to the view that “the damage is done”, experiences and interventions in adolescent can offset the effects of earlier adversity on the brain. (Patton & Viner 2007, cited in Robinson, Elly & Miller, 2012, p. 7)

Our role is to provide context, developmental experiences, safety, resources and support for young people so they can move forward on their journey through adolescence to adulthood—at their own pace and in their own unique way. The process of planning is an opportunity to develop social and emotional wellbeing and positive outcomes for young people.

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