Understanding The Teenage Brain
June 28, 2021
You often hear that adolescence is one of the biggest times for change. Teens are going through puberty, growth spurts, navigating relationships and new responsibilities. In addition to the physical, social and emotional changes, their brain is still developing and is not fully mature until their mid-twenties.
We sat down with one of HopeWay’s psychiatrists, Taren Coley, MD, who is double-board certified in Child & Adolescent and Adult Psychiatry, to better understand the transition from adolescence to young adulthood and how adults can foster independence and a sense of self in teens during that time.
What is actually happening in the brain when a child is moving from adolescence to adulthood?
Dr. Coley explains that the brain develops from the back to the front, and the frontal cortex is the last area to fully mature. The frontal cortex is responsible for decision making, rational thinking, reasoning and problem solving. Areas of the brain, like the amygdala, which is related to the “fight, flight or freeze” response and emotions, develop early on. As children get older, pruning also takes place. The brain filters out connections that are not needed and strengthens connections to make the brain more efficient. While teenagers and young adults can physically look grown up, they may still use a more primitive part of their brain and act based on emotion, rather than reason or rationality.
Why can this be problematic?
The dichotomy is that as children get older, they are faced with more challenging situations and decisions, but their brain has not yet caught up. It does not mean they cannot decipher right from wrong or make the right decision, but it can be more challenging. There are often societal expectations that teens should be able to make adult decisions, but we need to remember that the brain is still maturing. Rational thinking, empathy, considering different points of view, analyzing pros and cons and understanding consequences have to be modeled in order for teenagers to learn the skill.
What is your advice to support this transition?
It is important to lay the foundation early and to raise kids in a safe, loving, and supportive environment. When children’s basic needs are met, they then have the capacity to focus on developmental changes. Let the child know that you are available to talk, and work to foster honest and open conversation. Doing this from an early age helps build trust as the conversations become more difficult.
Teenagers can be egocentric and have a hard time seeing outside of themselves. Often, they do not see the bigger picture and cannot recognize that their actions have reciprocal effects. Show them how to consider another perspective by discussing a decision in your own life. Analyze the pros and cons, and discuss the consequences. Also, involvement in various educational, physical and creative opportunities is important as the brain learns how to adapt and respond.
How do you know when behaviors are "typical teenage behavior" versus abnormal behavior?
This is a tricky question because this time in a child’s life is so complex. As a Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist, I am very careful when making a diagnosis because their brain and personality are still evolving. However, it is important to recognize patterns of behavior and based on those patterns, identify the most effective intervention.
As far as abnormal behavior, look for changes from a child’s baseline. Questions like “Why is my child all of the sudden not sleeping?” or “Why does my child now come home and lock themselves in their room?” should raise a parent’s antenna. It does not necessarily mean something is pathologic, but it should mean that you are questioning and aware of what’s happening. If patterns persist and a parent is concerned, it is smart to talk to a mental health professional.
You want to make sure you are covering your bases and not missing something. Yes, teenagers have mood swings and they get upset. Yes, they will experience social and relationship hardships. As a parent, trust your gut and intuition. No one knows your child better than you do.