Skip to main content

A friend of mine once said she was undecided about having children. I asked why.

“Well,” she said, “the truth is I love babies, and children. But they turn into teenagers, and I just don’t really know if I want one of those!”

Teenagers do foolish things – they drive at high speeds. They stand around outside loud parties, drinking themselves silly. They lie.  They can be abusive. They can be unapologetic and rude. And let’s not overlook their very special talent: the ability to drive their parents completely crazy.

Here’s why.

Neuroscience research shows us that the average teenage brain looks slightly different than a brain of an adult. The biggest difference is the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with:

  • Reasoning
  • Thinking
  • Attention
  • Complex planning
  • Decision-making
  • Impulse control
  • Logical thinking
  • Organised thinking
  • Personality development
  • Risk management
  • Short term memory

To put it shortly, the teenage brain’s prefrontal cortex is under construction.

Now this doesn’t excuse the behaviour (teenagers still need to learn what’s appropriate and what’s not), but it does help to explain it. Simply put, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is associated with self-control. It helps us to understand why thrill-seeking and poor judgment go hand in hand, and why they can be such a dangerous combination!

Some parts of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, are not fully developed until the age of 25. This is precisely why teenagers take more risks than adults.

There are several significant aspects to note about this. Firstly, the teenager needs to understand that their pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed (I’ll get to how to deal with this in a minute). Secondly, it is essential that parents, caregivers and teachers not think that teenagers are nuts.

While teenage behaviour can be puzzling, we just need to remember that they have a very different brain from adults who are much better at assessing risks, seeing consequences and connecting the dots between the two.

I won’t lie. Patience is required. Lots of it.

And while it’s important to remember the developmental timeline of the brain, it’s just as fundamental to keep in mind that every one of us is different. Even the most ‘switched on’ or ‘responsible’ teenagers can experience major struggles with impulsive decision-making or might not be capable of planning to reach a goal. But during the next phase of brain development, as teenagers move into young adulthood, cognitive abilities such as advanced reasoning, abstract thinking or self-consciousness will rapidly expand. The good news is that these help to connect the kind of reasoning capabilities that contribute to emotion regulation and impulse control.

Risk Taking Isn’t All That Bad

More often than not, teenagers do what peers want them to do, or what they think peers want them to do, rather than what they – as an individual – want to do or what is rational for them.

Risk-taking, peer-driven and reward-seeking behaviour can be hard for teachers and parents to deal with or merely observe. Therefore, it’s critical to see the positives, and to realise that youthful foolishness usually doesn’t last forever. There are many positives in taking risks – such as trying new things, getting out of ‘the comfort zone’.

Big lessons can be learned.  Passions can be uncovered.

Teenagers are driven by the emotional part of their brain.  They are highly sensitive and this is partly what causes them to feel things quite strongly, react harshly, be ‘moody’ and feel a little ‘uncomfortable’ in their own skin.

All brain functions are complex, but in trying to simplify the function of the amygdala, it’s suffice to say that it plays a necessary role in emotional memory. This area of the brain is highly active in teenagers and it’s why some teens may feel more aggressive, scared or distressed than adults – almost as if their emotions are amplified.

Seeking Pleasure and Reward

Although the teenage brain has an undeveloped prefrontal cortex, teenagers have a very strong desire for reward. And when you think about it, this combination could explain a lot of stereotypical teenage behaviour.

You may have heard that the brain has a pleasure centre that lets us know when something is enjoyable and reinforces the desire for us to perform the same pleasurable action again and again. This is also called the reward circuit, which includes all kinds of pleasures… Some of the brain areas impacted by pleasure include:

  • Amygdala – regulates emotions
  • Nucleus accumbens – controls the release of dopamine
  • Ventral tegmental area – actually releases the dopamine
  • Cerebellum – controls muscle function
  • Pituitary gland – releases beta-endorphins, which decrease pain; oxytocin, which increases feelings of trust; and vasopressin, which increases bonding

It’s important for teenagers to understand that the brain is designed to seek out pleasure and reward. So, while typical teenager behaviour might be to do something for the sake of being accepted or something they may regret later on in life because it ‘feels good’ at the time, teenagers need to be encouraged to understand that it’s the pleasure and reward area of their brain and they can have some fun with it. They can challenge their thinking and expand their ideas – opening themselves up to other possibilities that will still help them to feel pleasure and reward but without the ‘danger’ element!

We simply need to work with teenagers. Like we teach toddlers to walk and talk and make sense of their surroundings, we need to help teenagers to navigate their emotions and how the brain processes these, and how to keep a sense of control when they feel that they have lost it. We should help them to figure out what makes them ‘tick’ instead of going on ‘auto pilot’ without considering what they are doing and why and how it might impact them in later life.

Working with teenagers includes helping them to:

  • Expand the mind to other possibilities.
  • Make a plan – mapping out steps to get a better outcome.
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation and journaling to sift through the daily ‘stuff’ and work on the trouble spots.

The Impacts of Stress on the Teenage Brain

The prefrontal cortex is our most evolved brain region, our highest order cognitive abilities. It is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. The slightest, mildest form of stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of our prefrontal cognitive abilities.

Studies have revealed that the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, brain regions integral to the process of memory, are rich in receptors for hormones that are activated by stress and sleep deprivation and which have been shown to have destroying effects on memory.

Which brings me to this. If our prefrontal cortex shuts down when we are stressed out, how does this play out for teenagers and young adults who don’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex? Sitting university exams, writing assignments, navigating relationships, preparing job applications and sitting interviews… These are all highly stressful situations that can be detrimental for teenagers and young adults. They panic! And then the prefrontal cortex shuts down. It goes into hibernation and takes some encouragement to come out.

Helping teenagers to deal with these situations is the subject of our next article. And the tips are useful for adults too. Skills that help to manage stress, if taught early, set us up for a life that’s calm, happy and productive, and over which we have control.