As helping professionals, it’s important for us to be able to make sense of the way teens act. Behavior makes sense when we understand what causes it and the most effective adult responses become clearer when the nature of adolescent development is revealed. The brain is a great place to start.
Adolescence poses unique neurobiological circumstances that, when understood, can help to put teens’ behaviors into perspective. Understanding these aspects of adolescent growth will help us maintain an open stance so that we can build effective, authentic relationships with the teens we serve.
Fortunately, adolescent brain research continues to evolve and give us answers about why teens do what they do.
So why do teens act the way they do?
Reason #1: Their prefrontal cortex is still developing.
The prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain. It is responsible for planning, organizing, and synthesizing all the information coming into our brain and figuring out what to do with it in a goal directed, efficient and systematic manner. Many of the behaviors most typically associated with teenagers—obnoxiousness, poor judgment, lack of planning and foresight and ineffective problem solving—are heavily influenced by the prefrontal cortex’s immaturity.
Longitudinal studies on adolescent brains tell us that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until at least age 25.
Many of the behaviors most typically associated with teenagers—obnoxiousness, poor judgment, impulsivity, lack of planning and foresight, and ineffective problem solving—are heavily influenced by the frontal lobe’s immaturity.
Recognizing that this is a real developmental deficit (or rather skill set still in progress) can help to minimize personalization of adolescent behaviors.
Brain development is dependent on a host of variables like genetics, exposure to stimulation and injuries to the brain. But the simple process of growth and maturity help the prefrontal cortex develop and guide more mature and useful responses.
Until then, a measured adult response and honest yet respectful feedback, while helping them examine what they did and ways to do it better next time, will help grow neuron connections in this area of the brain. In addition, opportunities to talk our own problem solving steps out loud will serve as a powerful way to model these skills and help them evolve.
Reason #2: The teen amygdala is overactive.
During adolescence, the part of the brain that is the most active is the amygdala. It sits deep in the brain stem and is responsible for emotion and primitive, instinctual reactions including fear and aggression. As a species, this part of our brain has allowed us to survive throughout the course of human evolution. It is also involved in the way teens process and assess information.
When we think of adolescents being moody, over-reactive, or on an emotional roller coaster, these are very real experiences for them. Studies using FMRIs (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) show that adults interpret facial expressions using the cortical region of the brain (thinking) while adolescents interpret faces using their amygdala (emotion).
Their perceptions are being funneled through their emotion center. This process explains why teens may over-personalize communications from others.
This understanding helps us to be more empathetic in our response to the teens in our lives and makes space for some benefit of the doubt, gentle clarification and validation that their interpretations—while perhaps misguided—are real for them.
Reason #3: Myelination, Brain Shaping, and Neuroplasticity.
A major finding in research on the developing teenage brain is that it is physically changing shape by undergoing a process of specialization called pruning. Neuron connections from behaviors no longer needed literally disappear while others are formed through the engagement in new and more targeted understanding and tasks. This process is facilitated by myelination.
Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates the connections between brain cells, particularly those pathways that are used most often. With frequent use, pathways in the brain become myelinated, creating a more fast and efficient pathway for that task.
This is why when we’re learning something new, it’s challenging at first. Most of us have to focus on a skill and practice it over and over again until the pathways for that skill become myelinated and the skill becomes easier.
The processes that occur in the frontal lobe of the brain—focus, attention, goal-directed behavior, judgment and problem-solving—combined with the overactive amygdala, create unique challenges for adolescents. DNA, time, and opportunities for practice and learning allow adaptive neuron pathways to myelinate and strengthen.
Supportive and understanding relationships with adults are a powerful tool in guiding adolescents into maturity while their brains are still fully developing. As adults, the more we provide teens with opportunities to focus, pay attention, practice goal-directed behavior, use good judgment, and solve problems, while understanding that emotions are at play, and mistakes will be made, the better off they’ll be.
For more about how to understand and work more effectively with teens, check out the book “What Works with Teens: A Professional’s Guide to Engaging Authentically with Adolescents to Achieve Lasting Change.”