Have you ever looked at your teenage child and wondered: “Why do you do that?”  From mood swings to risk taking, “normal” teenage behavior can appear to be anything but normal.  Let’s look at the brain on adolescence.

But why?

Hormones often tend to bear the brunt of what goes wrong during adolescence however research and imaging studies show that the brain may be behind much of this behavior. From studying brain development we have learned that teens are more likely to:

  • Act on impulse
  • Misread social cues and emotions
  • Get into accidents of all kinds
  • Get involved in fights
  • And engage in risky and dangerous behaviors

and less likely to:

  • think before they act
  • pause to consider the consequences of their actions
  • change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors
  • and hold back or control their emotions

But why?

While it was previously believed that the structure of the brain was more or less fixed by age 3, we now know the brain continues to change throughout life, and that after infancy the brain’s most dramatic growth spurt occurs in adolescence.  The good news is: the capacity of a person to learn will never be greater than during adolescence because of this. However, the greatest changes in the brain during this time occur in the areas responsible for self control, judgment, emotions, and organization.

Puberty marks the beginning of major changes in the brain and during this time the brain develops rather unevenly, from back to front.  This means that the parts to develop first are those that control physical activity, emotion and motivation such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens, and the part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses, the prefrontal cortex, is near the front of the brain and, therefore, among the last to develop.

So what does it mean to have an undeveloped prefrontal cortex in conjunction with a strong desire for reward?  Well this can certainly help account for much of the stereotypical teenage behavior we see including seeking a buzz to satisfy the reward center while the prefrontal cortex can’t fully register all the risks these actions entail.

So try to keep this in mind the next time you find yourself puzzled by the words and actions of your teenager.  Keep parenting, keep helping them make good decisions, and keep holding them accountable; because the habits started in adolescence will often times follow them well into early adulthood and beyond.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2016, September). Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making. Retrieved May 15, 2018, from https://www.aacap.org/aacap/families_and_youth/facts_for_families/FFF-Guide/The-Teen-Brain-Behavior-Problem-Solving-and-Decision-Making-095.aspx

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