Making Sense of Your Teenager: Teen Brains are Wired Differently

Many parents do not understand why their teenagers occasionally behave in an impulsive, irrational, or dangerous way. At times, it seems like teens don’t think things through or fully consider the consequences of their actions. Adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. There is a biological explanation for this difference. Did you know that big and important changes are happening in the brain during adolescence?

Children’s brains have a massive growth spurt when they’re very young. By the time they’re six, their brains are already about 90-95% of adult size. For girls, the brain reaches its biggest size around 11 years old. For boys, the brain reaches its biggest size around age 14. The early years are a critical time for brain development, but the brain still needs a lot of remodeling before it can function as an adult brain.

This brain remodeling happens intensively during adolescence, continuing until your child is in their mid-20s. Brain change depends on age, experience, and hormonal changes.

Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.

Other changes in the brain during adolescence include a rapid increase in the connections between the brain cells and making the brain pathways more effective. Nerve cells develop myelin, an insulating layer that helps cells communicate. All these changes are essential for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behavior.

Pictures of the brain in action show that adolescents’ brains work differently than adults when they make decisions or solve problems. Their actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex. Research has also shown that exposure to drugs and alcohol during the teen years can change or delay these developments.

Based on the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to:

  • act on impulse
  • misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
  • get into accidents of all kinds
  • get involved in fights
  • engage in dangerous or risky behavior

Adolescents are less likely to:

  • think before they act
  • pause to consider the consequences of their actions
  • change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors

Ongoing changes in the brain, along with physical, emotional, and social changes, can make teens vulnerable to mental health problems. All the big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why adolescence is a time when many mental disorders—such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders—can emerge.

Because the teen brain is still developing, teens may respond to stress differently than adults, which could lead to stress-related mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Mindfulness, which is a psychological process of actively paying attention to the present moment, may help teens cope with and reduce stress.

Although adolescence is a vulnerable time for the brain and for teenagers in general, most teens go on to become healthy adults. Some changes in the brain during this important phase of development may help protect against long-term mental disorders.

These brain differences don’t mean that young people can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. However, an awareness of these differences can help parent and teachers, understand, anticipate, and manage the behavior of adolescents.

The combination of your child’s unique brain and environment influences the way your child acts, thinks and feels. For example, your child’s preferred activities and skills might become ‘hard-wired’ in the brain.

The teen brain has lots of plasticity, which means it can change, adapt, and respond to its environment. Challenging academics or mental activities, exercise, and creative activities such as art can help the brain mature and learn.

How teenagers spend their time is crucial to brain development. So, it’s worth thinking about the range of activities and experiences your child is into – music, sports, study, languages, video games. How are these shaping the sort of brain your child will take into adulthood?

You’re an important part of your child’s environment. You mean a lot to your child. How you guide and influence your child will be important in helping your child to build a healthy brain too.

You can do this by:

  • encouraging positive behavior
  • promoting good thinking skills
  • helping your child get plenty of sleep

While your child’s brain is developing, your child might:

  • choose high-risk activities or risky behavior
  • express more and stronger emotions
  • make impulsive decisions

Brain growth and development during these years means that your child will start to:

  • think more logically
  • think about things more abstractly and understand that issues aren’t always simple
  • pick up more on other people’s emotional cues
  • solve complex problems in a logical way, and see problems from different perspectives
  • get a better perspective on the future

Here are some tips for encouraging good behavior and strengthening positive brain connections:

  • Let your child take some healthy risks. New and different experiences help your child develop an independent identity, explore grown-up behavior, and move towards independence.
  • Help your child find new creative and expressive outlets for feelings. Your child might be expressing and trying to control new emotions. Many teenagers find that doing or watching sports or music, writing and other art forms are good outlets.
  • Talk through decisions step by step with your child. Ask about possible courses of action your child might choose and talk through potential consequences. Encourage your child to weigh up positive consequences or rewards against negative ones.
  • Encourage empathy. Talk about feelings – yours, your child’s and other people’s. Highlight the fact that other people have different perspectives and circumstances. Reinforce that many people can be affected by one action.
  • Emphasize the immediate and long-term consequences of actions. The part of the brain responsible for future thinking (the prefrontal cortex) is still developing. If you talk about how your child’s actions influence both the present and the future, you can help the healthy development of your child’s prefrontal cortex.
  • Try to match your language level to the level of your child’s understanding. For important information, you can check your child has understood by asking your child to tell you in their own words what they’ve just heard.

During adolescence, sleep patterns change because of hormonal changes in the brain. But children still need plenty of sleep for their overall health and development, including their brain development.

Research shows that melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) levels in the blood are naturally higher later at night and drop later in the morning in teens than in most children and adults. This difference may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens do not get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can make it difficult to pay attention, may increase impulsivity, and may increase the risk for irritability or depression.

These tips can help your child get they sleep they need:

  • Ensure your child has a comfortable, quiet sleep environment.
  • Encourage ‘winding down’ before bed, away from screens including phones.
  • Encourage your child to go to bed and wake up at regular times each day.
  • Encourage your child to get 8-10 hours of sleep each night.

The most important part of supporting your teenager’s brain development is just being present. Allow your teen to know you are available for support, without being pushy. Being with- celebrating the highs and riding out the lows.

If you feel your teen needs additional help and support, CONTACT US to discuss ways therapy can help.

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