According to psychologists and neuroscientists, the teenage brain is a wonderful work in progress … and hugely exasperating to those around them!
“Moody. Impulsive. Maddening. Why do teenagers act the way they do? Viewed through the eyes of evolution, their most exasperating traits may be the key to success as adults.” (1)
For parents of adolescents it may be very hard to believe the latest research which tells us that those most annoying and seemingly non-understandable quirks of teens – the impulsiveness, selfishness, recklessness and angst – are in fact, understandable.
Further, from an evolutionary perspective, adolescents’ most exasperating traits are in fact important to their success as adults.
Why Do Teenagers Do Such Dumb Things?!
When we consider the serious consequences of some of the more extreme and unsafe adolescent behaviours – such as impulsivity and risk taking – it is easy to question how they could possibly be a “normal” part of healthy brain development. A quick look at the wide reaching changes taking place in the teenage brain, can shed some light on why they may be regarded as “understandable” and how they can assist future success.
Recent scientific research has provided new information about changes in the human brain over the life span. We now know that most brain growth occurs from birth to age six and that by this time the brain has reached 90-95% of its full size.
Don’t Just Blame The Hormones!
From this time on, growth is mostly due to the skull thickening. However, it is the change within the brain that affects those in the age range from 12 to 25 years, and this change has been likened to a massive remodelling and rewiring of the neural networks. While once “raging hormones” were held responsible for extremes of adolescent emotion and behaviour, we now know that while hormones definitely increase and affect the adolescent, it is “normal” brain development that holds the key to the adolescent experience.
Remodelling (brain maturation) means that the teenage brain becomes much faster at processing, and has greater capacity for complex thinking. Brain imaging shows that these physical changes move slowly from the back of the brain through to the front.
We also know that those areas at the back of the brain, close to the brain stem, that are responsible for supporting basic functions like vision, movement and fundamental processing are the areas initially affected by the change.
Also nestled close to the brain stem is the hippocampus (the area that links memories with the emotions and senses that accompany them). Over time, the links become stronger between the hippocampus and those areas at the front of the brain where goals can be set and where behaviour can be determined. This process of creating stronger links does however, take time.
Another brain region, affecting adolescents and their behaviour, is the nucleus accumbens or the area that seeks pleasure and reward. Again, imaging studies show adolescent responses to medium and large rewards are far greater than those recorded by adults and children (in fact, there was very little response by adolescents to small rewards). Dopamine (a neurotransmitter produced in the nucleus accumbens and crucial to motivating our drive for reward) is released in increasingly larger quantities in early adolescence, and these quantities peak about midway through (3).
Last but not Least: the Prefrontal Cortex
However, while all of these changes are going on in the lower and mid brain early in adolescence, the area where where judgement is formed, impulses and emotions are controlled, and outcomes weighed up – the prefrontal cortex – is much slower to develop.
Therefore, adolescents find themselves with a faster system of thinking, capable of taking on board new and complex information, but without the support of processes that inform good judgement, impulse and emotional control. Moreover, they now have a system more intensely geared for reward, which is again unsupported by adequate capacity for rational thinking and self-regulation.
Remodelling and Rewiring Takes Time!
How could this occurrence be a part of an evolutionary process that has been adapted over time to support the survival of the human species? It may help parents or carers of adolescents to accept that this age group needs more time to master their new skills and changed circumstances and also time for the remodelling and rewiring within their brains to fully develop.
It helps also to understand that impulsive or risk taking behaviours also motivate this group, to seek out new friendships and relationships that support their ability to move away from parents, and eventually become independent and capable adults. Seeking novel and rewarding experiences influences their choice of preferring time with each other over family, and determining career paths fuelled by motivation to follow their own dreams.
Parents and carers cannot always understand or “be there” for their adolescents as they navigate what can be a risky, puzzling and at times frightening. time of their lives. Nevertheless, we do know that being supported and guided by a caring, steady adult who stays connected while allowing and accepting independence, provides the most positive setting for teenagers to make the challenging transition to adulthood.
Sometimes teenagers require the assistance of professionals if their challenges become overwhelming, and likewise, so do those who care for them.
Having some understanding of the significant changes that are a “normal” part of the teenage brain development, may however be a support in assisting their self-determination as independent, capable and caring adults.
Author: Wendy Taylor, B Sc (Psych); M Couns; PG Dip Psych; M Psych; MAPS.
Wendy Taylor is a Brisbane psychologist with extensive experience in working with children, adolescents, young adults and their parents, across a range of issues. Wendy’s therapeutic approach is client-centred and strengths-based, as she assists clients to identify, develop and build on individual strengths and community resources, to support ongoing capacity for personal growth and sense of fulfilment across the life span.
To make an appointment, you can book Brisbane Psychologist Wendy Taylor online, or freecall 1800 877 924 today.
- Dobbs, D (2011). Beautiful Brains. The National Geographic (October 2011), p.36 – 59. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2011/10/teenage-brains/dobbs-text
- Edmonds, M. Downloaded on 7.02.2016. http://www.lhsenglish.com/uploads/7/9/0/8/7908073/teenage_brain_development.pdf
- Seigel, D (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York: Penguin