What Does Brain Development Have to do With Teen Behavior?

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As I read about or listen to parents of adolescents, the most common comment I hear is that their kids seem to be regressing not progressing.

Complaints of irresponsible behavior, disrespect, and unpredictable, often-explosive emotions seem to be the mantra of many parents of teens. Behaviors are often described as uncharacteristic of their children, even when they were younger.These new distressing behaviors leave parents feeling that their kids are being difficult by choice, willfully disobeying and choosing to engage in behaviors that violate family values that were thought to be well established years ago.

In some cases this could also involve high-risk behaviors such as drinking, drug use and other illegal or morally questionable activities.

Although these behavioral changes around adolescence are hard to deal with, new research in brain development suggests they are fairly easy to explain. Until the relatively recent discoveries about brain development, it was assumed that the brain was fully developed by the age of 10.

New technologies that allow scientists to observe the brain while it is working have established adolescence as a period of major revisions in how the brain functions. During adolescence the brain once again overproduces gray matter (the brain tissue associated with thinking) followed by pruning to produce a far more efficient brain. This process has been determined to continue into the early 20s. Of particular relevance for understanding the perplexing behaviors of adolescents is the massive development of the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain, just behind the forehead, controls the most advanced brain functions. This region of the brain controls reasoning, impulse control, self-control, planning and organization.

Researchers agree that the immaturity of the prefrontal cortex is a significant contributor to some of the strange behaviors that emerge in adolescence and may offer a more complete explanation of juvenile delinquency. If a teen is not capable of adult reasoning, especially understanding the consequences of their behavior, it is not surprising that they will make bad decisions and engage in reckless behavior. Add to this the other dramatic biological occurrence of adolescence … sexual maturation and the massive production of hormones that fuel that process. The combined effects of fluctuating hormone levels with an immature brain produces an individual who is far more likely to respond emotionally rather than with reason and good judgment.

It is important to note that what has been described so far is considered the normal developmental process. Research has also demonstrated that life history affects how this pattern of brain immaturity and hormonal change play out on adolescent behavior. In 2003, Dr. Chris Mallett, the public policy director at Belletaire Children’s Bureau in Ohio, http://www.bellefairejcb.org/  interviewed death row juvenile http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/criminal_justice_section_newsletter/crimjust_juvjus_Adolescence.authcheckdam.pdf  offenders and found startling similarities in the traumatic experiences of these youth. He found that 74 percent came from dysfunctional family situations, 60 percent had experienced abuse or neglect, 43 percent were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, 38 percent had a substance addition, and 38 percent were raised in poverty. Most disturbing was the finding that 30 percent of these violent juvenile offenders had experienced all of these childhood traumas.

The difference between “normal” adolescent angst coupled with questionable behavior and violent juvenile offenders? Well there are most likely several, but the most obvious is the role of parents.

Since the brain is still developing during adolescence, parents need to recognize that their role during this developmental period of their child’s life is just as important as when that unruly difficult teen was a sweet and adorable baby.

The trick is to get it right. Obviously we can’t treat our teenagers like babies. We need to acknowledge that teens don’t always understand our reasoning no matter how logical or compelling. Anger doesn’t help, given that adolescents are likely to misunderstand adult emotions due to their own difficulties in coming up with an appropriate emotional response for any given situation.

As parents we need to remember to practice what we preach. The behaviors we engage in still serve as powerful models for appropriate behavior. We can help our teens with their reasoning skills by being reasonable. We can help them with regulating their emotions by engaging in desirable emotional responses in a variety of situations.

Teens also need to be exposed to opportunities to exercise their developing brains. We can help them learn to organize their thoughts, control their impulses and emotions, and understand the consequences of their behavior as long as we stay involved and interested in their lives without becoming intrusive, as another major change during this time is the psychological imperative to become increasingly independent.

The world of the adolescent is complex. As we come to better understand the biology of adolescence we will hopefully be better prepared to understand that some of the behaviors they engage in are the result of the biological changes they are experiencing and not necessarily a conscience choice to be obnoxious or deviant.

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