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Adolescent Brain Development

The rational portion of a teenager’s brain does not begin to reach its full development until the age of twenty-five. This area of the brain is known as the prefrontal cortex.

Adults are generally able to respond to situations using good judgment, with consideration for long-term consequences due to the fact that the prefrontal cortex is fully formed. Adolescence is a challenging and emotional time in a child’s life, not simply due to their brain development, but also in regards to various hormones that are beginning to surface. The surge of hormones coupled with an amygdala that is further developed than one’s prefrontal cortex can create an emotional rollercoaster for a teenager. 

Amygdala

The portion of the brain that is responsible for emotions is known as the amygdala. Recent studies have found that while adults (over the age of 25) typically think with the prefrontal cortex (the rational part of one’s brain), teenager’s brains primarily function from and process information with the amygdala. This can result in extreme and sometimes unexplainable, emotional decision-making. Furthermore, the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex in teenagers are still developing, which means that emotional decisions and rational decisions have the propensity to be completely disconnected. It is not uncommon, for example, that when an adolescent experiences overwhelming emotional input, he or she may be unable to access what they were thinking about, as they were not thinking as much as they were feeling

How To Help

Every adolescent develops at his or her own pace. While a parent may be unable to speed up the development of their child’s prefrontal cortex and the connection between his or her prefrontal cortex and amygdala, they can provide much needed support. Even though your child may be spending increasingly more time with his or her friends, it is imperative to keep in mind that you are the most important role model in his or her life. Your child notices a significant amount of your every day moves, pays attention to your choices (large and small), watches how you respond to challenges and in many ways will try to emulate you. Do your best to be the role model they deserve.

Create an open line of communication with your teenager. Take an interest in things that are important to your teen, and let them know that you are interested. There will be moments when your teenager uses poor judgment and/ or makes a less than desirable choice; this is par for the course in the life of a teenager. With an open and honest line of communication you can help your teenager process his or her behaviors. This can help to create synaptic connections in your teen’s brain between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, helping the connection between the two areas further develop. When appropriate, another way to help further a teenager’s brain development is to have a discussion surrounding an undesirable action that may have taken and explore the possible consequences. Linking their impulsive behavior with rational consequences can help reinforce connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

It is not uncommon for parents to try and resolve their children’s problems, but in some cases this can actually deter a teenager from openly discussing their challenges. There may, however, be situations that warrant your guidance even if your teenager is less than amenable. The fact of the matter is that an adolescent’s brain is not yet fully developed and is operating as such. Try to bear this notion in mind and if there is ever a situation with which you need guidance in supporting your child and his or her needs do not hesitate to reach out.  

For Information and Support 

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know is in need of mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person for the long term. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

References

Blakemore SJ. Development of the social brain in adolescence. J R Soc Med. 2012;105(3):111–116.

Goudarzi, Sara. “Study: Why Teens Don’t Care.” LiveScience. Sept. 7, 2006. http://www.livescience.com/health/060907_teenage_feelings.html

Steinberg L. Risk taking in adolescence: new perspectives from brain and behavioral science. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2007;16(2):55–59.

“Teenage Brain: A work in progress.” National Institute of Mental Health. 2001.