Understanding the Mysterious Teenage Brain
As much as your teen thinks he’s officially an adult, his brain development says otherwise. Until he reaches his mid- to late 20s, his brain continues to develop, increasing in both processing speed and efficiency. At the same time, he is improving his ability to control emotions, thoughts and actions. This growth, along with synaptic pruning during which the body rids itself of excess connections in the brain, allows the brain to function more efficiently during adulthood.
Brain development begins from the back of the brain and works its way to the front. The frontal lobes, which control planning and reasoning, are the last to strengthen and structure connections. These are the “executive” parts of the brain that control cognitive skills, such as abstract reasoning, problem solving, judgment and emotional expression.
As your teen’s brain undergoes these changes, here are four key things you should know.
- Your teen may take risks. At the same time that your teen’s frontal lobes are developing, the limbic system in his brain is still very active. This area is responsible for immediate reactions to threat, and so controls anxiety, fear and aggression. These areas also are involved in assessing risks and rewards, which might make your teen more likely to engage in questionable, even dangerous, behavior. The thoughtful, frontal lobes are not yet fully developed, so your teen may experience sudden mood swings and impulsive behavior, which can lead to accidents, fights and other dangerous activities.
- Your teen may be prone to anxiety and depression. Adolescents experience heightened stress-induced hormonal responses. Many areas of the brain are affected by these hormones. As a result, your teen is more likely to experience feelings of anxiety and depression when stressed. Risk factors for anxiety and depression can include academic pressure, over-scheduling, bullying and family conflict. Additionally, expectations for teens have skyrocketed. These pressures — including often-unrealistic academic, social and parental expectations — could further contribute to teen depression.
- FOMO is a real thing. In a nod to the digital age, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real thing. However, it’s not about tropical vacations or fine dining — it’s about connection. In a study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, individuals who felt social exclusion showed increased activity in regions of the brain associated with pain. Teenagers place a high premium on social acceptance and are especially vulnerable to this type of pain. This could explain why they constantly check their social media accounts or, more dangerously, check for messages while driving.
- Teens are vulnerable to addiction. With poorly developed coping skills, poor decision-making, poor inhibition and a desire for social acceptance, teens might turn to alcohol, prescription pills or drugs to cope. These substances can ignite “reward” chemicals in the brain, creating artificial signals of pleasure. This creates the instant gratification that they are seeking. Therefore, it’s important to talk to your teen about the consequences of alcohol and drug use, and promote healthier outlets like exercise or journaling.
Parents, What You Can Do
You may be perplexed by some of your teen’s behaviors, but there are ways you can help him navigate these years.
- Encourage and promote a healthy lifestyle, especially setting a routine sleep schedule. The smallest changes in sleep patterns can aggravate negative emotions and poor behavior.
- When they exhibit mood swings, be there to listen and provide support. Try teaching them appropriate coping skills to deal with sudden, strong emotions. These can include seeking support, relaxation, mindful meditation and “reframing” how they look at events that are leading them to feel depressed, anxious or angry. Keeping a sense of perspective and developing effective solutions can be quite helpful.
- Consider joining a support group guided by a licensed behavioral health therapist to help you navigate the trials of parenting. These groups can educate you about tough topics relevant to today’s generation, including social media, cyber-bullying, cell phone use and more. It also provides a forum to connect with other parents.
Your teen’s behavior may sometimes be a mystery to you, but it’s comforting to know that their brains are doing what’s normal for this stage of development. However, if something doesn’t seem quite right or behaviors seem too extreme, talk to your child’s physician.
– Mark A. Reinecke, PhD, Northwestern Medical Group, Psychology