The last phase of brain development occurs within the pre-frontal cortex during adolescent years and is typically completed by one’s early twenties. The pre-frontal cortex, an anterior region of the frontal lobe, is a part of the brain that integrates things like memories, speech, feelings, and external stimuli into a “big picture” understanding of our environment and our existence within that environment. Because the pre-frontal cortex is so critical to concepts such as understanding context and perspective, its development also impacts our ability to make decisions.

Adolescents frequently have difficulty with decision-making because they are literally still developing the capacity to view situations with the full range of information they have available to them. Prior stages of childhood development are often critical periods to relationship-building and early self-identification. By adolescence, the challenge is to integrate a still-evolving identity into a place of congruence with the outside world.

At this time, it is common to see teenagers pushing boundaries, alternating their external appearances and behavior with great frequency and demonstrating increased self-involvement or, conversely, extremely low self-esteem. While these behaviors are often difficult for the friends and family members they are in close contact with, they are part of the adolescents’ process of individualizing and gaining insight into themselves as separate entities from the people and environment around them.

An individual’s adolescent years are a very sensitive period of development and can often be the source of enduring trauma and dysfunction as they move into adulthood. It is natural for parents to feel confusion and fear around these changes in their children and to approach them with criticism, especially in the form of shaming and fighting.

Unfortunately, teenagers are especially susceptible to judgment and shaming due to the still-evolving nature of their self-identification, and negative criticism is often unconsciously internalized in the form of “trauma” to that early identity. External criticism and judgment may unknowingly become a narrative of internal criticism within the adolescents that can persist throughout the rest of their lives and hinder their sense of confidence in later careers, relationships and sense of self.

Amidst ego and power struggles, the parents of teenaged children may be unaware of the extent to which their own past traumas are being irritated or “triggered” by observing this process within their children. My work with parents and adolescents during this period of huge transition focuses on reinforcing the creation of space for both individuals and safe, loving detachment.

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