THE TEEN BRAIN: STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Adolescence can be a volatile time. Parents are often bewildered by behaviors that seem uncharacteristic of the child they thought they knew so well:

 

  • emotional outbursts, recklessness, rule-breaking

 

This conduct, however, is nothing compared with what's going on in the heads of the teens themselves. Unlike their often unruly behavior and their developing bodies, the growth and development of the teen brain is silent and unseen.

 

What's Going On In The Teenage Brain?

 

 

"What were you thinking?"

 

          "How could you do that?"

 

                     "Don't you know better?"

 

 

This litany of questions, or something like it, is probably familiar to parents of teenagers. The fact is that teenagers confront challenges, pressures, stresses and temptations, and must respond to them with brains that are not yet fully developed. They not only lack the time and experience that adults have had to acquire a sense of the world but their brains also haven't physically matured yet.

 

A teen's capacity for abstract reasoning, memory, and planning are fully developed by age 15 or 16. If asked hypothetical questions about risks and rewards, they usually give the same answers as adults. In real life, however, teens find it more difficult than adults to interrupt an action underway (stop speeding); to think before acting (learn how deep the water is before diving); and choose rightly between safer and riskier alternatives. Their judgment can be overwhelmed by the urge for new experiences, for thrill-seeking, and sexual and aggressive impulses.

There is evidence that this has a basis in brain structure and functioning. Research shows that the circuitry of the human brain is not mature until the early 20s. Importantly, among the last connections to be fully established are the links between the prefrontal cortex - the seat of judgment and problem-solving - and the emotional centers in the limbic system. These links are critical for emotional learning and self-regulation.

 

Hormonal changes are at work, too. The adolescent brain pours out adrenal stress hormones, sex hormones, and growth hormone, which in turn influence brain development. For example, the production of testosterone - which acts on the limbic system - increases by 1000% in adolescent boys.

 

This means that the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online or even more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional impulses in check are still developing. The "mismatch" in development might provide clues to the teenager's appetite for novelty and a tendency to act on impulse without regard for risk. This can explain how teens, who are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity experience a jump in mortality rates between early and late adolescence.

There is also research to suggest that adolescence brings with it brain-based changes in the regulation of sleep that may contribute to teens' tendency to stay up late at night. Along with the obvious effects of sleep deprivation, such as fatigue and difficulty maintaining attention, inadequate sleep is a powerful  contributor to irritability and depression.

 

None of this means that teenagers are foreordained to engage in extreme behavior or suffer from psychological problems. Nor does it excuse them for the problems their behavior might create. But when such things occur, it is important to understand how the brain's normal development may be a contributing factor.

 

Certainly, extreme behavior and emotions call for professional attention. But what about the vast majority of teens who, though avoiding the extremes, are going through some more or less typical adolescent turbulence?

 

Dr. Andrew Garner, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says "Our job as parents is to get them to slow down and help them think through what they are doing." He likes teens to "have a plan for after high school because a future orientation is a good predictor of transitioning through adolescence well...As long as teenagers are social, eating and sleeping well, and working towards the fulfillment of their plans...then I'm happy and their parents should be happy, too."

 

Content of this page is based on publications from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Harvard Mental Health Letter

"Every   action  and   feeling is preceded

by a thought."

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