Our kids are prone to questionable behaviours and mental health disorders during puberty and throughout adolescence, but an increased understanding of the developmental stages of the brain will help us to see that behaviours such as risk taking, thrill or sensation-seeking (and becoming more involved with peers) does not signal emotional or cognitive problems; it’s just a normal part of growing up and learning to navigate life.
Neuroscientists who have focused on the development of the teen brain, have made significant recent progress in understanding the changes that are occurring during this somewhat challenging life period. Particularly, in helping to determine that the teen/adolescent brain is unique, and it operates and functions very differently to the child or adult brain. With the recent improvements related to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we have been able to ethically scan, image and research the brain, largely due to the technology not requiring any type of radiation as a source of imaging.
The adolescent brain is very changeable and adaptable throughout this period of life, a concept defined by neuroscientists as brain plasticity. This is an important process for the development of thinking and socialisation because it allows the brain to modify the connections and communication networks in response to the surrounding environment. However, during puberty and throughout adolescence, the individual can be more prone to risky behaviours and mental health disorders because there is a mismatch in the development of the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is maturing and more highly-developed. It is responsible for a range of functions including emotional response, and the processing of memories, among other functions. Whereas, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for functions such as decision-making, planning, and social behaviours, doesn’t fully develop until around 20-25 years of age. So, what we end up with is a large gap between the ability to experience emotions and passions, and the ability to control them, and make sound judgements and decisions. And, with the onset of puberty now occurring earlier, this developmental process is beginning much sooner than in previous generations.
Understanding the developmental stages of the brain will help us to see that behaviours such as risk taking, thrill or sensation seeking, and becoming more involved with peers, does not signal emotional or cognitive problems. It simply means that the behaviours are part of the natural developmental process for young people to learn to navigate the complexities of the world, to develop their own unique identity, and to assert their independence.
This knowledge can also assist us in supporting young people in a time when they are highly vulnerable to the development of mental health disorders. Knowing more about the ‘typical’ teen behaviours related to brain development, can assist us in identifying any unusual behaviours that might indicate an illness such as anxiety, addiction, or depression.
What are the stats and facts?
- Research tells us that around 50% of the mental health disorders that people experience throughout life, will emerge before the age of 15 years, and 75% of disorders by the age of 25 years.
- Some of the more common illnesses include anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, psychosis, addiction, and substance abuse.
- There are many other variables that can increase the likelihood of illness, they include prolonged stress, socioeconomic or family status, education levels, childhood trauma, lack of coping skills or resilience, among other factors. However, from a physical perspective adolescence is a really healthy time due to heightened immunity levels.
By understanding the unique intricacies of the adolescent brain, parents, teens and other significant supportive adults can work together to better manage the risks, and seize the opportunities that adolescence provides.
What can adults and teens do together to seize the opportunities of adolescence?
- Learn together about the impact and opportunities of digital and social media. Parents can learn the ‘language’ of social media to connect with their sons and daughters at their level.
- Talk honestly about topics of challenge in adolescence such as decision making, social awareness, anxiety and depression.
- Build a shared understanding of the types of preventative strategies and approaches that can help to keep young people safe and healthy eg. digital tools and apps, mindfulness, gratitude etc.
- Understand that impulsive behaviour is largely developmental, and focus on things that can be done to help, such as teaching decision-making skills and providing a sense of safety for the young person.
- Provide opportunities for constructive conversations about freedoms and responsibilities.
- Work together to harness the creativity, passions and skills of the adolescent.
- Try a wide variety of new things, such as sports, musical instruments, and hobbies to challenge the brain.
- Provide opportunities for expression, challenge, problem-solving, and decision making.
- Giedd, J. N. (2015). The amazing teen brain. Scientific American, 312(6), 32-37.
- Medina, J. (2018). Attack of the Teenage Brain: Understanding and Supporting the Weird and Wonderful Adolescent Learner. ASCD.
- Romeo, R. D. (2013). The teenage brain: The stress response and the adolescent brain. Current directions in psychological science, 22(2), 140-145.
- Dr Josh Symes