I can remember how quickly Mom and I could slide into a shouting match when I was a teen. All would be going along well; perhaps we were standing in the kitchen talking about school or what I wanted for my birthday. Out of nowhere would come the explosion. “We’ll need to see,” I can hear Mom saying to my suggesting that all my friends come for a slumber party to help me celebrate. “That means it probably won’t happen,” I spouted back. And we were off and running. Never mind that an hour earlier I had turned down an offer from one of my buddies to sleep over at her house on Saturday night. Miss my family’s weekly TV (Gunsmoke and Perry Mason) and hamburger night? No way. As I look back on those early teen years, I can recall clearly the quick swivel from red-in-the-face anger toward my parents to that feeling of never wanting to leave their side.
This emotional tug-of-war within a girl is a predictable inner sport during the teenage years. Perhaps a useful way to think about this time is to imagine a tunnel that adolescents enter around the age of twelve or thirteen. As parents, we may not notice the gradual movement of our teenage children away from us. But one day we look around and realize that the girl we used to know is gone. Where is the ten-year-old who wanted to hold our hand to cross the street or linger at the dinner table to talk? Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of her—she emerges from the tunnel long enough to wave. Then, she’s back inside again for weeks or even months. We are left confused and bewildered.
Communication suffers during this period. How many of us would have to admit that conversations with our adolescent daughters can bring out the worst in us? We have all had the experience of standing toe-to-toe with a fifteen-year-old who looks like an adult but acts nothing like one. The dialogue begins; we try to be rational and reasonable. Before we know it, we are tangled up in our own logic. We can’t get our point across. We have lost our way and are awash in frustration.
Adolescents are works in progress, and in the past we have attributed adolescent angst and shifting personas to fluctuations in hormone levels. However, research on adolescent brains as reported by the University of California at Los Angeles and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests that the kaleidoscope of behaviors and emotions we observe in adolescents may be related to an expansion of brain cells and neural connections.1 According to scientists, the frontal lobes, the region of the brain that regulates judgment, emotion, planning, and organization, undergo a huge growth spurt in the teenage years.2 Yes! we think. Good news! This could explain a lot.
These findings debunk earlier reports, such as the 1997 White House Conference on Early Learning and Childhood Development announcement that most growth in children’s brains happens in the first eighteen months of life and that by the time a child is three, brain connections are basically set.3 I’m certain I wasn’t the only parent who wondered if I had cuddled and read to my daughters enough. It’s good to learn that the die is not cast before a girl is barely out of diapers.
Discovering that the brain is more malleable during the teenage years than once was thought allows us, parents as well as educators, to create opportunities for adolescents. As a girl moves from puberty to young adulthood, the circuitry in her brain slowly begins to consolidate. The neural connections that a girl uses regularly—to solve calculus problems, read musical notation, or negotiate roommate disagreements—become, as it were, hardwired into her brain. Connections that are not reinforced through use fade away. According to Jay Giedd of NIMH, “Teens have the power to determine their own brain development, to determine which connections survive and which don’t.”4
Those of us who parent and teach adolescent girls also have opportunities in light of these findings. We are better able to understand our young people. For example, here at Miss Hall’s School we have observed that girls make quantum leaps in abstract thinking between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Now we have more insight into why that happens. The data give us a better context in which to try to unravel the mysteries of an adolescent girl’s development.
Perhaps the most provocative aspect of this research is what it suggests about the importance of our work with girls in middle to late adolescence. As parents and teachers, we have always understood that we are making deposits into a young bank of intellect that will serve a girl for a lifetime. Understanding more about how a girl’s mind develops confirms our commitment to insisting that she take healthy risks, embrace a challenge, and reach for the top. Just as important, we are strengthened in our resolve to nurture her determination, compassion, and integrity, knowing that with these hardwired qualities, a girl will be well prepared for life.