Understanding the Developing Teenaged Brain

“Caution: Work in Progress”

This may very well be the sign that should be placed on teenagers – giving some level of comfort to baffled parents. What happened to their sweet, acquiescent toddler who seemed to have transformed into a sullen, irrational and rebellious teen?

Under Construction

Scientific research indicates that there is a physiological reason. According to a paper by the American College of Pediatricians1 , the teenage brain still has a lot of growing up to do. This includes:

–          The frontal lobe. This will not mature fully until around age 23 to 25. This area of the brain is also known as the “judgment center.” It is in charge of thinking through actions, looking at risks and consequences, decide what is right and wrong as well as inhibit impulsive actions.

–          The amygdala. This is the part of the brain that controls and interprets emotions – of the individual, as well as those around him. During the teenage years, the amygdala is not yet fully myelinated, so that its connection to the judgment center is still poor.

–          The hippocampus. This is the memory center of the brain. At ages below 20, the still-developing hippocampus is quite susceptible to the damage caused by substances such as drugs and alcohol.

The teen’s immature brain makes a teen less able to make informed and healthy decisions, as there is more of a tendency to act impulsively than to think things out. This is coupled with huge changes in the hormonal environment. Estrogen and testosterone, as well as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and vasopressin, make up the cocktail of the “raging hormones” in a teen. There are indications that the “reward center” is still immature in early adolescent brains. During this time, there are usually lower levels of dopamine (a feel-good hormone) in the reward center, prompting a teen to try risky behaviors to achieve a dopamine-induced high.

So you have a brain that seeks excitement during a time when there is undeveloped ability to moderate behavior and think them through.

Risky behaviors and the Damage It Does

According to the same paper from The American College of Pediatricians, risky behaviors during one’s teens can be harmful to the teen’s brain development. These behaviors (including substance abuse and sexual activity) can result in long-term issues with poor socialization, mental disorders and an addiction to unsafe behaviors.

That is why it is very important for parents to safeguard not just the physical wellbeing of their children, but their emotional and psychological wellbeing as well. It is during the teens that problematic behaviors become hard-wired to the teen’s system and it becomes so much harder for them to overcome these behaviors later in life.

For instance, teens are more prone to binge drinking alcohol, since their teenaged brains react differently to alcohol that adult brains do. There is also a higher risk of alcohol abuse and addiction in the long term with teens that drink or try drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.  Research also indicated that indulging in risky sexual behavior and drug use leads to depression, attempted suicide and suicidal ideation.

Protecting Our Teen’s Brains

In the same way that negative behavior can affect the developing brain, positive reinforcement can also do a lot of long-term good. Parents can work towards setting limits and ground rules to minimize exposure to risks and negative influences. We can also provide a loving and caring environment where a teen feels safe and is less vulnerable to peer pressure and outside stressors.

With this insight to the developing teenaged brain, parents can also do well to channel the teen’s need for excitement and dopamine-induced highs. Parents can do this by providing positive experiences in the areas music, sports or academics. For instance, learning a particularly challenging sport or complicated skill can produce the same rush that they may get from high-risk (and even illegal) actions. Shoulder-to shoulder-activities such as fishing, camping or playing a sport are not only boding opportunities but provide the positive connections for a healthy brain.

Now, if your teen is already exhibiting some problematic behavior, do not think that it is too late. You can still work to protect his developing brain by providing him with support and the right environment. For example, you can send a child to a teen wilderness program where he can be challenged to go outside of his shell and work with the team as they face the wildness of the natural environment. If you have already caught your teen abusing drugs, a troubled teen program such as the troubled teen residential program. Remember, the earlier the intervention, the less likely that your teen will suffer from the harmful effects of his risky behaviors.


1 https://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/the-teenage-brain-under-construction

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