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What’s Up With My Teen?: How Brain Development Affects Adolescent Behavior

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by Ryan Thill, LPC

Adolescence can be a time of joy, excitement, and trials. One moment adolescents can be wonderful individuals with incredible potential and the next, they can make an inexplicable decision. We all have been there where we look at our child and say ‘what were you thinking?’

Adolescents seem to make decisions void of any logic and parents are left wondering how they will keep their sanity. Mark Twain once said “When a child turns twelve, you should put them in a barrel, nail the lid down and feed them through a hole. When they turn sixteen, you should plug the hole.” Sometimes this is a very tempting proposition. However, a deeper look into adolescent brain development is shedding some light on the reason why adolescents are sometimes so inconsistent.

Prior to the invention of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), scientists knew little about brain development. With the use and development of the MRI, are beginning to have a deeper understanding of adolescent brain development. We have learned about the shift in the adolescent sleep schedule as well as the adverse effects narcotics like nicotine, alcohol, and more recently marijuana have on brain development.

However, one of the more intriguing discoveries has been about what areas of the brain adolescents use for tasks and how it differs from the adult brain. Scientists have discovered the portion responsible for memory and emotional responses develops much faster than the portion responsible for judgment, long term planning and consequences, perception, and personality. This is where an adolescent’s emotional and erratic behavior comes into play. Adolescents can lack the capacity to regulate their emotional reactions in the way adults do because that portion of their brain is still developing. This is why your teenager may react emotionally in extreme ways or why they always think they are right. They lack the capacity to step back, evaluate a situation, and realize they might not know everything (shocking, I know). When the synapses have made all the necessary connections between the different areas of the brain and the critical areas have more time to develop, we will see our children start to behave more like adults.

What does this mean for parents?

It is critical for parents to communicate with their children without all the emotion.  I know to some parents this seems like an impossible task.

Some helpful tips:

Take 10: Let your child calm down in some other part of the house by themselves.  This allows them to vent some frustration so they are not simply reacting to anything you say.  This also allows the parents some time to take a deep breath and think about what they want to talk about.  Some battles are not worth fighting while others are worth dying for – deciding which one is key.

Listen First: Let your child tell you how they feel and why.  This is important because it will help them to start to think about their emotions as opposed to simply reacting to them.

Explain: Nothing will put ice in your adolescent’s veins faster than saying something like ‘because I said so.’  This is hard for many parents because it is the easy thing to do; however this will only put more distance between you and your child.  It can be annoying to explain to your adolescent the reasons for everything you are doing but it will help them to better understand what you are doing and why.  They need to hear phrases like ‘we love you’ and ‘we want the best for you’ with the explanation so they remember as the parent, you have their best intentions at heart.

If adolescents slow down and think instead of react, they begin to process what is going on. Battles which explode out of nothing tend to happen because the adolescent is utilizing the part of the brain that processes what is happening instead of using the part that processes what is going on and thinking rationally.  In these instances, it is essential to walk through everything step-by-step and break things down to avoid reactionary arguments.

Scientists are still debating how long brain development takes. However, they all agree the earliest an individual can be completely done with brain development and adolescents is about 22 years of age. Every child is different and children can certainly be a source of joy in our lives. Technological developments have illuminated why adolescents behave in certain ways. At the same time, it has shown parents there is hope! Your adolescent isn’t crazy and there is no such thing as “a lost cause.” It is important to note – brain development is not an excuse for bad behavior and poor choices.  Children learn best via consistent, positive and negative consequences – in a loving environment.

Adolescents need to hear how their parents are making decisions in a loving context daily because it will teach their brain how to think logically.  Much to parents chagrin, one of the last areas of the brain to fully develop requires a lot of love and patience.

This is why parenting is one of the hardest and emotionally draining jobs on the planet.