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Kids – What Are They Thinking?

By Beth Eberhardt

Why do toddlers and teens sometimes have meltdowns? Like many things, it comes back to the brain and what it needs to take things in, process, and decide on the best course of action. Like all of us, the more tools we have the better chance we have of thinking and acting from a place of personal power and peace.

At one time it was thought that the foundation of the brain’s architecture was laid down by the time a child was five or six. Indeed, 95 percent of the structure of the brain has been formed by then. But researchers have discovered changes in the structure of the brain that appear relatively late in young people’s development. Dr. Jay Giedd, at the National Institute of Mental Health, and his colleagues found that in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, the brain appeared to grow again just before puberty. The prefrontal cortex resides just behind the forehead. This part of the brain is fascinating to researchers because it acts as the CEO of the brain by controlling planning, working memory, organization, and modulating mood. As the prefrontal cortex matures, adolescents can reason better, develop more control over impulses and make better judgments. In fact, this part of the brain has been noted as “the area of serious second thought.”

If you work with young people in any capacity, whether that is as a parent, teacher, friend, or any of a variety of other ways, you may want to consider the positive effects that energizing the pre-frontal cortex has on younger minds. A healthy pre-frontal cortex helps young people see things clearly, plan ahead and decide which risks might be worth taking.

A well-documented study that appeared in the journal Child Development in 2011 out of Temple University found a relationship between impulse control and the pre-frontal cortex and what a healthy part of development this is. The study found that the ability to solve increasingly complex problems does not have as much to do with intelligence as was once thought. It has much more to do with the ability to stop, assess all the components and plan ahead. This skill was clearly found in more adults than adolescents. The pre-frontal cortex, which is the newest part of the brain, is really the last to develop fully. Emotion and reaction are part of the limbic system, which is actually found in an ancient part of our brain, which is one of the first to develop. So basically adolescents have a limbic system that is running at full speed while their pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for their decision making, risk assessment and executive function, is hurrying to catch up. When peer pressure is added to the mix, there is increased activity in the limbic system while at the same time a decrease in the activity of the pre-frontal cortex.

Hopefully you can now better understand the way that teens sometimes make their decisions. It is no wonder we catch our selves saying…”What were they thinking?” The author of the Temple study, Dr. Dustin Albert, states, “Programs that target adolescents’ still-emerging capacity to plan ahead, control their impulses, regulate their emotions and resist peer pressure may help bolster youngsters’ ability to make good decisions in the world.”

There is a great deal of research that has been done on the power of mindfulness and meditation. Both have been found to improve almost all areas of your life. Deep breathing, focusing the mind and slowing the moment between provocation and reaction are all functions of an activated pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex also plays a big part in our ability to relate deeply, to feel joy and empathy, as well as cultivate intimacy. It is the connection that aides us in making choices from our head and our heart. It assists in fostering patience, wards off fear-based reactions, strengthens cooperation and healthy problem solving. An energized pre-frontal cortex helps kids develop clarity, connection and confidence. That is what we call giving young people a HEAD START!

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