Inside the tweener's brain

What insights can neuroscience offer parents about the mind of a middle schooler?

By Hank Pellissier

The middle schooler's brain

"When I’m a grown-up, I want to be totally awesome."

The tweens and early teens of sixth, seventh, and eighth grade are often hormone-addled, pimpled, unpredictable narcissists, rudely defiant one second and emotionally clingy the next. They've probably calculated that you're not as completely cool as Lady Gaga, Peyton Manning, or even their faddishly-dressed BFF – and they let you know it. You may wonder if your precious child's body is inhabited by aliens. Honestly, close guess — those invading “aliens” are hormones.

When kids reach puberty, their brains produce gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). When GnRH courses into the tiny pituitary gland, two additional hormones — luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) — escape and basically run wild. In boys, these hormones swim south, telling the testes to start manufacturing testosterone and sperm. In girls, LH and FSH manipulate the ovaries, soliciting production of estrogen. Either way, all hell breaks loose.

During this traumatic time, we need to provide often-unwanted (but typically much-needed) love, advice, and support — which is why it's helpful to know what's occurring, anatomically, in their evolving noggins. Here's how you can better understand — and navigate — the cranial crises of your adolescent child.

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Judgment or lack thereof

From middle school to maturity, the brain’s primary growth area is the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes, a region that's referred to as the "CEO" or "central decision-maker" of the brain. The cognitive control center, it’s responsible for functions like mediating conflicting emotions, making ethical decisions, inhibiting emotional and sexual urges, general intelligence and predicting future events. If you’ve noticed your 11-year-old son can be frightfully disorganized, or that your tween daughter now seeks a private area, like in a locked box or drawer, for secret items or a journal, you can trace these behaviors back to the brain of their brains, so to speak.

And right now it’s changing tremendously in a "rewiring" process that fortifies certain neural highways while virtually abandoning the majority of others. The transitional activity of this rewiring phase is disorienting for your young teen, and often exhibits itself in recklessness, poor decision-making, and emotional outbursts.

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Pleasure seekers

A research article published in Cerebral Cortex (January 2010) suggests that adolescents indulge in risk-taking behavior because the anterior insula is more highly-activated in young teens than in adults, and the ventral striatum peaks in middle adolescence. These regions are hypersensitive to reward. Underdevelopment of frontal lobes also makes youngsters behave more emotionally, because they're still making decisions with their wild, fight-or-flight, reptilian-brain amygdala, instead of with their reasonable, civilized (and still growing) prefrontal cortex. Warn your impulsive daredevil about the dangers of drugs, smoking, alcohol, unsafe sex, and out-of-control skateboarding without a helmet, emphasizing the catastrophic harm that can befall their most prized possession: the mind.

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Weird growth

Yikes! What's growing? Tell your child immediately (if you haven't already) about the physical changes ahead, which are triggered by the GnRH and LH hormone releases. For girls: breasts, acne, pubic hair, menstruation, wider hips. For boys: underarm, pubic, and facial hair, acne, larger testicles, wet dreams, erections, etc. If you don't warn your pubescent progeny, they'll be freaked out by “gross” surprises. Plus, tell them - while they squirm and cringe - that they might start to develop crushes. Middle schoolers are often self-conscious about their body's developments, with anxiety about how others view them.

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Feed the brain

Many sixth, seventh, and eighth graders want to slurp unhealthy junk food and soda pop into their gullets, because the “pleasure” centers of their brain develop sooner than their ability to calculate long-term consequences. They'll beg for it. But don't cave in: Junk food contains chemicals that can disrupt their hormonal secretions. Instead, help your child eat healthy food – and explain that it fosters their brain development. (Check here for tips on some healthy brain foods for kids.) The Centers for Disease Control recommends a diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, which is moderate in sugar, salt and saturated fats. This doesn’t mean putting your child on a no-fat diet! “Healthy fats” such as egg yolks, avocado, and salmon are known to support brain function. Avoid the obesity that weighs down almost 20 percent of U.S. children this age — studies show obesity can eventually cause a decline in the brain’s cognitive abilities, particularly in learning and memory. Studies also indicate that bulimia nervosa can negatively affect brain regions involved in the reward circuitry, and according to researchers at Yale, anorexia may shrink the afflicted’s grey matter.

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No virtual violence

Gamers played one of two types of video games while researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine used MRIs to watch which brain regions were stimulated. When kids played "Need for Speed: Underground" - a non-violent game – activity was observed in the frontal area, a zone associated with concentration and self-control. But when kids played "Medal of Honor: Frontline" – a violent game – there was no frontal area activation; instead, the amygdala was excited. (That’s the "reptilian" part of the brain.) The amygdala is affiliated with emotional arousal – especially anger – and is linked to aggressive, impulsive behaviors. Repeated firing up of reptilian zones can "hardwire" a developing brain for less self-control, which is not great in middle school or in adulthood. So if you purchase video games, make sure the focus is on racing or skill, not violence.

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Tuning in to tweens

An article in Journal of Adolescent Research reports that in a study of 6,026 middle schoolers, "students enrolled in formal instrumental or choral music instruction . . . outperformed [their peers]" in algebra. The correlation was especially noted with African-American pupils. Seem like a coincidence? Think again: Research suggests that, "musicians process music in the same cortical regions that adolescents process algebra."

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Gender gap

Girls' and boys' brains are vastly different in middle school. The National Institute of Health discovered that the halfway mark in brain development (called the inflection point) occurs in females just before they turn eleven, but dawdling males don't get there until they're nearly 15. Academic abilities might also vary widely by gender. In girls, language and fine motor skills generally mature first, up to six years earlier. In the past, girls were found to lag behind boys in math, raising the possibility that girls brain development differed from boys. But since recent research finds girls now perform as well as boys in math, a more probable cause for the gender gap is culture not biology.

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Check mate

Strengthened interconnectedness in middle school isn’t just a social phenomenon – it’s in their brain architecture, too. You’ll see it in your child’s improved ability to plan, problem solve, process complex thought, do deductive reasoning, and process information. To multiply your middle schooler's mental powers, encourage them to play chess. Studies indicate that the tactical thinking required in the “Game of Kings" initiates a significant advance in mathematical ability. Other strategic brain-builders are checkers, backgammon, and the UniWar app for iPhone and Android.

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Brain and brawn

When it comes to helping your tween develop their mind, it’s worth challenging their muscles as well. Research shows that exercise has a significant positive effect on kid’s cognitive development. Students with higher fitness levels get higher grades and perform better on tests. One study found that strenuous aerobic exercise just before academically challenging classes help kids absorb and retain new material.

Jay Giedd, neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, has remarked that, "recess and play seems to be the first thing that is cut out of school curriculums… But those actually may be as important, or maybe even more important, than some of the academic subjects that the children are doing…" To buff up both their brain and their body, encourage your middle schooler to be active, play sports, and exercise regularly. Parents can also work out with them to provide healthy role models.

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Benevolent rule

A middle-schooler's evolving brain requires firm guidance from diligent adults. Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind, author of Prototypical Descriptions of 3 Parenting Styles, recommends "authoritative" parenting because it provides consistent, compassionate, goal-clarifying direction, and allows the child to build self-esteem by making intelligent choices. Over-controlling “authoritarian” parents who scold incessantly can instill a sense of inadequacy in their offspring, and over-indulgent “permissive” parents that heap silly praise without justification just give their kids a false sense of attainment.

Employ these tactics in your battle to raise a mature and sensible kid, and you’ll be a “totally awesome parent,” even if your teen doesn’t come out and say it just yet. Just wait – someday he certainly will.

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Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.