The Teenage Brain?

By Dr. Randy Simmonds, Clinical Director and Counselor at the Samaritan Counseling Center

Have you every wondered why your teenager's behavior sometimes defies all rational explanation? Have you every wondered if your kid has brain damage? What could they possibly have been thinking when they acted a certain way? Well, one answer to all those questions is, they were not!

Research in the last decade has given us some dramatic new insight into the development of the brain. We have learned that brain size stabilizes at about age 12, but development and neural pathways continue to develop until about age 25. So, a thirteen year old is about halfway through their brain development. Kids are not always able to tell you what is going on in their thoughts. We know that on the outside teens are growing rapidly and we see the changes that are huge in brief periods of time. Imagine what is going on in their brain! Their brains are in warp drive!

There are windows's of opportunity that happen during this adolescent brain development stage. Some emotional skills are primarily developed during adolescence; for example: the relationship skills of how to choose your battles. This is a skill that an adolescent is just beginning to grasp. (Ever wonder why sometimes your teen wants to fight about everything?)

There are also windows of sensitivity. There are times when a kid's brain development makes them more sensitive and reactive to substances. Substances can literally damage tissues in the brain where neural pathways are being created. We know that kids who drink in early teenage years are more likely to develop addictions. Specifically, there is a huge difference in addiction numbers for kids that delay regular drinking from age 13 to age 17.

There are hormonal changes that are significant during adolescent years, but not just those that affect sexuality. There are more than 50 hormones that start bubbling during these years. Research shows that there are surges in hormones that affect all sorts of behaviors: mood swings, energy swings, teenage laziness,sleep rhythms.

The brain's CEO is the pre frontal cortex. This is the area of the brain where certain functions are found planning and decision making, impulse control, emotional cues and risk taking. Here is the clincher. Research has found that when development is rapid in other areas of the brain, the pre frontal cortex is dark/dormant/under construction. So, sometimes when you ask, What were you thinking? The answer is, They weren't!

If you'd like to understand more about this research and implications for your parenting skills, see Why do they Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, by David Walsh, Ph.D.

Now please understand that none of what has been reported above is an excuse for bad behavior or poor decision making. It is still the job of parents to provide boundaries and consequences for choices on the part of their adolescents. We need to give our kids more and more responsibility as they grow up, even if they don't handle it well at first. We do so in order that they will learn how to act more responsibly. Remember you don't help a teenager grow into young adulthood by treating them like a child, but it is important to know that not all behavior is intentional behavior.