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Your Complete Guide to the Teenage Brain

Have you ever wondered “what is going on in my teenager’s head?” or “what was my teenager thinking?” After reading this article you won’t have to ask these questions ever again. By learning a little about teen brain development you can start to understand crazy teenage behavior better. This will help you communicate with your teen more effectively. So let’s talk about your teenager and what is happening in his or her brain.

About Teen Brain Development

The human brain develops in stages. Some parts mature earlier than others. The “lower” regions that control bodily functions, reflexes, and basic emotions mature very early in life. They are done developing soon after birth. The “higher” regions that control executive functions, long-term planning, and complex thinking don’t mature until later in life. These areas aren’t done developing until the early to mid twenties.

Why doesn’t the whole brain just develop all at once? Well, in general, bodily organs that develop sooner in life are influenced mostly by genes while those that develop later are more influenced by the environment. Think about it. This makes sense. The parts of the brain that mature early in childhood have less time to be exposed to environmental influences. So their structure is determined more by genes.

This is a chart about teen brain development. It shows the role of genes and environment in shaping the brain.

Think about it this way:

The most basic requirements of life are never going to change. We will always need to breathe and eat. When we feel pain we should withdraw from the source. When we sense danger we should hide and be quiet, run away, or prepare to fight.

But higher order stuff like social and emotional skills are constantly changing. People need to learn a very different set of cultural norms now than we did 100 years ago. Because these social and emotional skills require profound shaping by experience, it makes sense the brain regions that control them are some of the last to develop.

Emotions in the adult brain

In a fully-developed human brain, emotions start in “lower” regions (e.g., amygdala) and work their way up to “executive” regions (e.g., frontal cortex) which assess the situation and adjust the emotional response to make it a better match for what is actually happening the environment. So we essentially have an initial unconscious emotional reaction and then the more rational parts of the brain kick in and decide whether that reaction was actually called for or not. Then you adjust the response accordingly.

Why does my teenager act crazy? It starts with the way the teenage brain processes emotions.

Where does this leave my teenager?

OK, so let’s talk about your teenager. The important thing to understand about teen brain development is that during the teenage years the more basic parts of the brain are complete, but the finishing touches are still being added to higher regions. They haven’t yet developed the executive control to keep their initial reactions in check and put their urges into context. In fact, studies prove that teens can have much stronger emotions than either kids or adults in many types of situations.

This is why teens can get carried away with risky behaviors.

The thrill that teens get from risk is incredibly strong without a mature frontal cortex to keep things in check. And the feeling of connectedness they get from going along with the group and having a collective experience with their peers is also insanely powerful.

This is why you should absolutely be worried about your teenager driving with friends in the car. You might think “my teenager is a responsible driver so I don’t have anything to fear.” But you would be overlooking just how strongly the teenage brain is influenced by peers. For instance, in one study, researchers closely monitored the driving behavior of teens and adults either alone or with two friends watching.

Studies show teens drive more risky when their friends are in the car. You should be worried about your teenager, experts say.

The Ventral Striatum

The next thing you need to know about teen brain development concerns a region known as the ventral striatum. This area of the brain is responsible for processing anticipated reward. It becomes activated when we see or think about something that we want and it helps us stay motivated while we pursue that thing.

Adriana Galvan, a behavioral neuroscientist at UCLA, has done a number of studies that involved monitoring people’s brain activity while they made bets and won or lost money. She has found that teens show a much higher level of activation in the ventral striatum compared to children and adults. When teens are anticipating a win their reward circuitry goes crazy. In fact, studies show that there is one type of adult who has similar brain activity to teens in this type of betting task: gambling addicts.

Teens are basically addicted to short-term rewards.

In Some Ways this is Good

When I tell parents about teen brain science they often ask, “How can I stop my teenager from being so sensitive to reward?” Well, I actually don’t recommend trying to stifle these feelings in your teen. High reward sensitivity is what motivates teens to try new things and explore new possibilities. A teen might see a poster about the upcoming school musical, and actually audition for it on a whim! Or a teen might join the debate team or volunteer to tutor children, without every having expressed interest in these activities before.

The teenage years are a period of great experimentation as we essentially try on a lot of different hats in order to discover who we want to be in the world. High reward sensitivity is critical for facilitating this openness to new experiences.

What to do About Your Teenager

How can parents use this knowledge about teen brain development? Well, just as you would keep a gambling addict away from casinos and blackjack games, you need to keep your teen away from risky situations that trigger high levels of anticipated reward. Letting teens drive with friends in the car, hang out with older kids, or spend long periods of time unsupervised with members of the opposite sex is not a good idea.

They will have a very hard time resisting the urge to act out in these situations.

So explain to your teen that you’ve been reading about teen brain development and you realized that it is your job to essentially protect him from his own brain. Explain that this means you are going to start needing to know more about your teenager and keeping better tabs on where he is and who he is with. Or that you are going to need to start drug testing your teen regularly. Or that dates will have to be supervised. Or whatever you think is needed with your teen.

Next Steps

OK, I hear parents thinking: that wouldn’t work with my teenager. Well, this article is part of a series. Next, you need to learn how to figure out what your teenager’s core value is. Click here for an article explaining that. And if you are worried that any discussion with your teen will turn into an argument, check out my podcast episode about Resolving Conflicts with Your Teen FAST.


About Andy

Andy Earle is a researcher at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he studies adolescent risk behavior and the role of parents in helping teens thrive. He publishes papers and speaks to groups of parents about the science of talking to teens. Reach him any time at [email protected]

© 2017 Talking To Teens. All Rights Reserved.

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