“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, learning more about how the brain changes in adolescence can be valuable information in navigating what is often a tumultuous time.
Neuroscience tells us that the irritating and seemingly thoughtless behaviours of teens – the impulsiveness, selfishness, recklessness and angst – are all part of healthy brain development.
In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, these most exasperating traits are in fact important to their future success as adults.
Why are Teens so Annoying?!
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. By finding out more about how the brain changes in adolescence, can help parents to cope throughout the process and support their teenager during this critical time.
Although most brain growth occurs in the early years of childhood – reaching 90-95% of its full size by the age of six – there are massive changes within the brain throughout adolescence and right up to the age of 25.
Rapid Brain Changes in Adolescence Explained
These changes mostly involve a massive remodelling and rewiring of the neural networks. Once upon a time, “raging hormones” were blamed for the extremes of adolescent emotion and behaviour; however now we know that there is more at stake – in fact, it is how the brain changes in adolescence which affects teens (and their parents!) so dramatically.
Remodelling (brain maturation) means that in adolescence, the brain becomes much faster at processing, and has greater capacity for complex thinking. Research reveals that these physical changes move slowly from the back of the brain through to the front.
Areas at the back of the brain, close to the brain stem – those affecting basic functions like vision, movement and fundamental processing – are the first areas to be affected.
Also nestled close to the brain stem is the hippocampus, which links memories with the emotions and senses that accompany them. Over time, the links between the hippocampus and areas at the front of the brain become stronger. The front of the brain controls things like goal setting, and determining behaviour.
Another brain region affecting adolescents and their behaviour, is the “nucleus accumbens” – the pleasure and reward centre. Again, research has shown that 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).
Different Areas Develop at Different Rates
However, while all of these changes are going on in the lower and mid brain early in adolescence, the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain, is much slower to develop. This is where judgement is formed, and impulses and emotions are controlled.
As a result, 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. In addition, their brain is now more intensely geared for reward, which is again unsupported by adequate capacity for rational thinking and self-regulation!
The Key To Understanding
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 how the brain changes in adolescence, 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