Understanding the Teenage Brain, Part I
Understanding the Teenage Brain, Part I: The Importance of Connections
Parents, adolescents, and everyone in between can find the teenage years puzzling. Even Classical Greek philosopher Aristotle and famed playwright William Shakespeare penned questions about adolescent behavior.
Many teenage behaviors can be explained by changes happening in the brain during this specific period of development. It is important to note that the “teen” years can stretch beyond 13-18. Some of these behaviors may start showing up as young as eight, and they can continue into a person’s mid-twenties.
During this time, the brain is growing and changing as it experiences synaptic pruning. This means the brain is learning which connections it uses and strengthening those, while trimming away the excess. A National Geographic article on the teenage brain cites Vassar psychologist and adolescence researcher Abigail Baird, calling this period “neural gawkiness—an equivalent to the physical awkwardness teens sometimes display while mastering their growing bodies.” The changes can make teens seem impulsive and dramatic, but also allow them to be highly adaptable.
“Some parents think you just have to hold on—you just have to breathe and get through it,” Valley High School counselor Karla Hardy said. “We think these can be some of the best years because (teens are) trying things out, but they’re still protected.”
That layer of protection is why it is important for teens to have a strong family connection during the teenage years, even if they do not realize it. The teenage brain is a match for an adults when it comes to mental power, but thought processes come from a different part of the brain. Simply put, when adults make decisions, they use logic. Teens use emotions.
Another main feature of the teenage brain is its desire for connection. Teens are highly motivated by social rewards and are experimenting with independence by relying more on their friend groups for support. This can create what is known as the peer effect.
“If adolescents made all of their decisions involving drinking, driving, dalliances, and delinquency in the cool isolation of an experimenter’s testing room, those decisions would likely be as risk averse as those of adults,” adolescence researchers from Temple University said in a 2013 research summary. “But therein lies the rub: Teenagers spend a remarkable amount of time in the company of other teenagers.”
Humans spend more time with peers their own age during adolescence than any other time of life, and they are wired to want those peers to like them. When teens experience a social reward, it registers much more intensely than it might for an adult. Some brain scans indicate that teen brains “feel” peer exclusion the same way they would threats to life. This can lead them to taking risks to impress or attract their peers.
“The teenage brain is all about risk-taking,” district teacher-leader Carrie Jacobs said. “While that’s awesome in learning, they don’t have the forethought to see that (something) is going to be a bad decision.”
The Temple University researchers summarized two different simulated driving tasks focused on risk. In both, adults and teens took a similar number of risks when they were alone. With a peer in the room, teens took 50-100 percent more risks and “indicated stronger preferences for immediate over delayed rewards.” Adults did not change their behavior.
This desire to connect with peers is not always a detriment. It can also lead to future successes. The teen brain is open, flexible, and unafraid of new things compared to the adult brain—in fact, it seeks out change. This makes teens capable of leaving the safety of home to venture into the unknown “real world” with success. Combined with wanting to be liked, this can make teens amazing networkers. They are driven to connect with new people, building a support network for when they do leave the family.
During this period of growth and preparation for life on their own, teenagers still need a lot of support from parents and guardians. Not only do adults have logical thought to offer, they have life experience. The best thing parents and guardians can do is make sure their teens see them as resources. That trust comes from another connection—the bond between a child and their parent or guardian.
“The personal connection is a feeling,” Hardy said. “If they know, at the end of the day, they are unconditionally loved, that will strengthen the family.”
To learn more about connecting with your teenager, watch the district website for the second part in this series. Hardy, Jacobs, and Youth Justice Initiative representatives will offer more insights into the teen mind and provide tips and resources to help parents reach their teens.
Beautiful Brains by David Dobbs, from “National Geographic” (2011)
The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction from the National Institute of Mental Health (2011)
The Teenage Brain: Peer Influences on Adolescent Decision Making by Dustin Albert, Jason Chein, and Laurence Steinberg; from “Current Directions in Psychological Science” (2013)