Coping With The Adolescent Brain

When you think of teenagers, a lot of words might come to mind--moody, rebellious, self-involved, impulsive, irrational.... We used to think all these traits were the result of teens' "raging hormones." We used to think that most brain development was done by the time kids hit adolescence. New research tells us that there's a lot more to it than that!

In the past 10 years, some serious groundbreaking studies have begun to uncover the mysteries of the teenage brain. Advanced brain-imaging scans allowed us for the first time to really look at what was happening inside those adolescent heads, and what we found was a whole lot of previously unrealized growth and activity.

In fact, teenage brain development may be as extreme and as important as the neurological development that happens in the critical first three years of life. If you've ever compared adolescent behavior to the "terrible two's," you're in good company! Neurologists now identify these two time periods as crucial to brain development. Not only is this research fascinating to neurologists, who never expected to find such an enormous growth period, but it helps provide a lot of answers to parents, and teens themselves, about the changes, moods, and behaviors that we all experience in this important phase of life.

We now know that teen brains go through growth spurts in the areas related to language, logic, and spatial reasoning. Perhaps that's no big surprise, as we expect students to master increasingly complex concepts as they progress through high school. But another area that develops throughout adolescence (and even into our early 20's!) is the pre-frontal cortex, and this development is directly related to many teenage stereotypical quirks.

The pre-frontal cortex is in charge of planning, decision-making, and impulse control--many of the things that we associate with being a responsible adult. Because this area is immature in teenagers, they show a marked lack of consistency in these skills. Teens might embark on an adventure with their friends because it "seemed like a good idea at the time." The growing pre-frontal cortex makes it difficult for them to consider the outcomes of their actions, and even older teens, who are better at this particular skill, will often only consider potential positive outcomes, and completely ignore potential negative consequences that might occur as a result of their actions.

Teens are frequently seen as moody, too, and extreme in their reactions to others. One interesting finding related to this is how teens interpret others' emotions. A fascinating series of studies compared teens' and adults' reactions to pictures of faces expressing different emotions. Scientists found that teens were just as good as adults at recognizing obvious strong emotions such as anger or surprise, but that more subtle or ambiguous faces were routinely mis-categorized by teens as negative or angry, and triggered an intense response. This chronic misinterpretation of the emotions of others who may be feeling embarrassed, hurt, impatient, worried, or distracted may be responsible for teens' strong defensive reactions that can seem so out of place. To add to this, it turns out that the connection between the parts of our brain that rule emotional reactions and rational ones is also developing--making it more likely that teens will react to events emotionally without taking time to put things into context first.

Fluctuating neurochemicals play their part, too. The vast construction occurring in the pre-frontal cortex, for example, requires surges in the levels of dopamine in the brain. These varying levels often have the added effect of making teens less responsive to rewards than their younger and older counterparts, more responsive to stress, and more likely to seek out thrills through impulsive risk-taking behavior.

"Safe risk-taking" is in fact viewed as crucial to normal teen development. Dying one's hair purple, pushing athletic limits, or simply having time to walk, hike, or bike alone or with friends can all be slightly risky and very beneficial to teens' identity development. This need to "push the limits" seems biologically based, and necessary.

So what can parents, and teens themselves do to compensate for the still-developing brain? The first step is simply to recognize that some of these behaviors are biological, inevitable, temporary, and even necessary for healthy development. But there are strategies that can help smooth this process.

For example, when teens are faced with big decisions, discussing these with a patient, caring adult can be a big help. Parents helping their teens with decisions can ask future-oriented questions related to the decision, and lead teens through an adult decision-making process that includes consideration of both positive and negative consequences, and how one might deal with them. Taking the time to patiently prompt your teen to consider different outcomes (without simply telling them yourself!) can be exceptionally beneficial.

Another strategy involves remembering the teenagers' tendency to mis-read others' emotions. When teens seem to overreact, parents might verbally explain their own thought-process as a means of diffusing the situation. If you're a teenager yourself, you might try to remember that you're biologically programmed to overreact to perceived "threats." Even if you can't stop the overreacting, you might at least be able to understand it!

Risk-taking is essential, and there can be satisfying risks that are relatively low-impact. These might include risks in fashion and dress, or risks in athletic activities. Sometimes risk-taking behavior can even have positive social consequences, as teens push for social justice and change through positive protest activities. Parents cannot try to control every aspect of their teens' lives, and have to allow the freedom for teens to engage in this healthy risk-taking behavior. As long as there is an outlet for your teen to express individuality and make mistakes without feeling like a complete failure, parents have a greater chance at making important rules about truly dangerous risky behaviors, like drug-use, stick!

Above all, patience and respect for your teen's emerging autonomy are key to maintaining a positive relationship, as is understanding that teens are sometimes defensive because they have legitimately mis-read social signals. We all lose it sometimes when we think others are being hard on us for no good reason--teen brains just make it more likely that other people's actions are interpreted this way. Showing patience and love while understanding where your teen is coming from can be helpful for both you and your child. Finally, try to continue to plan regular activities together--your teen needs to know you're there, even if it seems like all he wants to do is push you away. And when he emerges from this adolescent angst, your new, adult relationship will be better for it.

For more information on the neuroscience of the teenage brain, check out Barbara Strauch's book, "The Primal Teen."