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Thinking With Jello: The Pre-Frontal Cortex


September 26, 2023

The Pre-Frontal Cortex acts like the CEO of the brain once it is fully developed. It governs judgement, decision making, overriding of emotional reactivity (emotional regulation) and a host of other executive functions.

But how well do you think a 21 year old (or teenager) will exercise good judgement or make decisions if the part of their brain that regulates that function is not fully developed?

Dr. Daniel Amen is a great resource for brain education and healthy living. There are eleven Amen Clinics around the United States. Dr. Bruce Perry is also a leader in neuroscience, especially related to childhood trauma.

Pre-Frontal Cortex Development

Our brains are wonderful machines. The brain forms from the bottom up and from the inside out, beginning with the brain stem all the way to the neo cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is the last structure of the brain to develop, right behind our forehead.

Pre-Frontal Cortex | TheScienceofPsychotherapy.com

Unfortunately, the full development of this last portion of the brain does not occur until a person’s mid-twenties (around 25 for males and 24 for females). So the ability to fully think like an adult really isn’t there for a young adult (18-21), let alone a teenager.

Until then, its like trying to think with a bowl of jello that’s not fully cooked!

We see this in their inconsistent and emotional decision making, taking things personally that are not personal, difficulty with boundaries, etc. Millennials and Gen Z have struggled in this area more than any generation before. Especially after the pandemic.

Consider Sarah. She was 18 years old, and attempting to make decisions on her own as an adult. She disagreed with her parents on many things, one of which was that she could make it on her own, and on the streets if she had to. Sarah was on an emotional rollercoaster daily and reacted negatively to people who told her “No” or disagreed with her. She could charm most anyone until they got to know her better. She was willing to trade sex for most anything believing she would be in control of any interaction. This, despite many experiences in life that had taught her differently. Sarah believed that turning 18 was a magical event. She believed that once she was an adult and could make adult decisions, things would be easier. Sarah wound up pregnant after a string of bad guys, could not keep a job or relationship, and was living in her parents basement.

Parenting A Bowl Of Jello

Yet parents often have the expectation that their children think more like they do, like an adult. Whether a teenager or a young adult, their capacity to do so just isn’t there. So disappointment, and possibly consequences, flow from those interactions. Which in turn sets the belief in the child that they aren’t doing something right.

What parents need to remember is that their child’s brain, even their young adult’s brain, is still developing. This is where lots of communication about expectations, reminders, etc. will become useful and productive.

A parent once said, “It was like a switch had been flipped on. The day she turned 25, I could tell something was different when she came down for breakfast, even before she spoke.” Her daughter had struggled through adolescence, including several stints with therapists and in residential programs.

Todd Call
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