What’s happening in the brain?

The first 1000 days of a child’s life are often heralded as being the most significant, in no small part because of what is happening in the brain.

The first 1000 days of a child’s life are often heralded as being the most significant, in no small part because of what is happening in the brain. Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to be shaped and changed by what it experiences. The foundations laid during these earliest days have an effect that lasts a whole lifetime. Every need and whether it’s met or not, every nurturing relationship or lack of, creates connections , called synapses, in the brain. The pictures of brain scans show the vast rate and volume of growth. It’s an astonishing design, created to be built and strengthened through relationships.

Brain development does not stop at 5 years old. In fact, adolescence is as significant a time of brain plasticity as those early years, and the opportunity (and challenges) it presents are as important. When a child reaches adolescence, what happens in the brain is like a time of pruning. Depending on the environment a child is in, the connections in the brain that are used are strengthened while those that are not, are removed. Adolescence is an important window of opportunity, a chance to bring reinforcement to strong, healthy foundations, but also to build in new ones where previously there have been gaps.

I’ve invested much of my working life in youth work, been a foster carer to teenagers and am now raising teenage daughters, but as my high school teachers will attest, science was never my forte, and I’m certainly not a brain specialist. However, exploring and understanding some of the discoveries about how the brain develops during this time is vital if we’re to understand our teenagers better and respond to them in a way that encourages, builds and grows them.

For example, the limbic system, where our reward processing is centred, the bit that gives you the kick when you take a risk, is hypersensitive during this time. Simultaneously, the pre-frontal cortex, the part which inhibits (or not!) dangerous behaviours (because of the development of cause-and-effect thinking) is not yet fully developed. That’s why teenagers are more likely to do some wild, sometimes risky things!

The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for understanding other people’s feelings and perspective, and this area is still very much developing throughout adolescence and beyond. Knowing this information can help us to reframe our frustration at our teenager’s apparent selfishness, into recognising that they are still learning how to understand other people and will therefore meet challenges (and need support) as they learn.

A period of life that is often written off as being an inevitably tough time, or where adults are powerless is, in reality, a time often characterised by misunderstanding in the context of huge transition. Whilst it's a time of significant challenge and opportunity for all families (adolescents or adults!) it’s amplified for care experienced children and their adults.

Author:
Claire for Home for Good


Date published:
June 2021


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