Adolescence is one of the most exciting and most challenging stages of the life span. As an adolescent you are often at your peak physical health and thinking in new and creative ways, you are exploring life, deciding for yourself if you want to follow the rules.
I didn’t find adolescence easy. I don’t think there are many people who do! But certain things would have been really helpful to know and I hope I can use this information for my own children.
1) During adolescents the brain is restructuring. It’s like a second story being put on a house. Parents often don’t understand how they can say something one day and their child seems to understand, then say the same thing another day and get a completely different reaction.
The remodelling in the integrative frontal areas of the cortex is responsible for teens becoming aware of themselves and thinking about life in conceptual and abstract ways. It permits teens to reflect on how we think, feel and do what we do, and how we might do things differently. Teens can now challenge old ways of doing things, but this new awareness can be overwhelming, leading to grumpiness, moodiness and confusion.
2) Changes in dopamine levels. Research suggests that baseline dopamine levels are lower in teens. This might be part of the reason teens say they feel “bored” unless they are engaging in thrill seeking behaviours or novel activities. Not only are baseline dopamine levels lower in teens, but the peaks are higher. This means the reward for risk taking behaviours is huge – the lows are lower and the highs are higher. Teens can be more impulsive as a result, not noticing the potential risks of behaviours or the downsides but looking for the peek, that feeling of being alive.
Hyper-rationality is another side effect of this dopamine reward system. Hyper-rationality is thinking in literal concrete terms. As adolescents we don’t look at the bigger picture, missing the context of the situation. The brain places lots of weight on the positive outcomes and not much weight on the negative results. I.e. the PROS out way the CONS. This is even more prevalent when teens hang out with other teens. As the teen years unfold we move to consider the larger context and to use intuition.
3) In early adolescence we may be more prone to “flying off the handle”. Having a parent interrupt us when we are busy, or a friend not call when they say they would may be enough for the early adolescent to loose it.
4) Adolescences are faster to react emotionally to situations – the limbic or emotion area of the brain is more active at this time than in childhood or adulthood. This means emotions can arise rapidly and intensely without the calming influence of the prefrontal cortex (the integrative part of the brain that can balance emotions).
Brain scans reveal that when teens are shown a neutral face in a photograph, a major area of the limbic region becomes activated. Adults don’t have this reaction. The result is that the teen can believe that even another person’s neutral response is filled with hostility. Neutral things said to adolescents can be taken as aggressive and a bump in the hallway or blank expression can be interpreted negatively.
Vulnerability: During the remodelling of the brain, it prunes the abundance of neurons and their connecting synapses. If there is an underlying mental health issue it is more likely to present itself during adolescence. Major psychiatric disorders like depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are more likely to appear for the first time. Sometimes the appearance of severe behavioural issues is a sign of a disorder. Some of these conditions include suicidal thoughts and impulses and so seeking help can be extremely important.
The good news: normal adolescent changes in the brain allow us to move out and away from home. The brain rewards us as we seek novelty and move out into the world.
As we reach later adolescence the frontal cortex develops more fully. We are more able to assess our responses and impulsivity decreases. Positive interactions with others and self-reflection are two ways to increase prefrontal functioning and balance feelings and reactions. Naming emotions can also help as this activates the prefrontal cortex and calms the limbic system.
I wish I had known all this when I was a teenager. It’s only recently that I have discover the power and purpose of the teenage brain by reading ‘Brainstorm’ by Dr Daniel Siegel. If you would like more information I’d highly recommend you do the same or come see me at my counselling practice.