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Navigating the teenage brain

Attempting to find one’s way around the teenage brain may seem daunting to contemplate. Perhaps you have one of your own (either a teenager… or a teenage brain) and have wondered what is going on in there, and what mechanisms drive those ‘typical adolescent behaviours’.

Before embarking on this journey, it may be helpful to consider the psychological ‘tasks’ of adolescence. A key task is moving from being dependent on adults to becoming increasingly independent… and coming to terms with the increased responsibilities that come along with that. There is a gradual but inevitable separation from parents and family and increasing reliance on peers for company and direction. Inevitable, too, is the search for identity – individual, group, sexual – and the accompanying tensions and awkwardness. Learning to cope with sometimes discomforting physical bodily changes is another key task, as is the need to tolerate emotional discomfort. This move from dependence to independence unavoidably involves trying to make sense of extreme and sometimes opposing needs and wants, for example, wanting to be close to family on the one hand, but feeling embarrassed by them on the other. Or coming across as very certain and self-assured, followed closely by extreme uncertainty and lack of confidence.

What factors contribute to the development of an adolescent, including his or her brain? Three key elements are: individual characteristics and personality traits, social and environmental context, and good relationships with available and trustworthy adults. However, this journey does not suddenly begin at age thirteen. Each person’s earliest experiences of relationships create a ‘roadmap for life’ – an internal guide for all future interactions and feelings about self, other people and the world in general.  Multiple repetitions of interactions reinforce the routes on the roadmap, which in effect are etched on the brain as the ‘roadmap for life’. Take a moment to think about a teenager you know.  How might his or her early experiences have affected his or her ‘roadmap for life’? How might his or her current experiences be further affecting the transition through adolescence?

So… back to the brain. Here are a few ‘brain facts’: it is extremely complex, sludgy pink in colour, consisting of 80% water and 12% fat. It is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons (the average brain has 100 billion by adulthood, with 400 billion being recycled in the first twenty years of life). These neurons connect with each other at junctions called synapses, enabling increasingly complex tasks to be achieved by the individual.

Brain development continues after birth, with ever increasing connections being made between the neurons, creating a vast and complex network of roadways. During adolescence, a pruning of these roadways takes place, with the most ‘used’ and most efficient roads being retained and those lesser used being closed down. It is a time when the higher level thinking part of the brain is ‘under re-construction’. To avoid unrealistic expectations and unhelpful misunderstandings perhaps all teenagers should come with a sign that says: ‘road closed – under construction’. This ‘thinking’ part of the brain is called the cortex, and is responsible for planning, organising, working memory, attention, problem solving and inhibition, to name a few important functions.

Whilst this ‘thinking’ part of the teenage brain is being reconstructed, many teenage interactions and processes are rerouted via the ‘emotional’ part of the brain. Perhaps this explains some of what we see of ‘typical teenage behaviour’, for example, rollercoaster emotions, impulsivity and risk taking behaviour.  It may come as news that this developmental process is not confined to the ‘official’ teenage years of thirteen to nineteen; rather it continues until approximately age twenty-five.

Of course, these processes are also affected by hormonal influences, some of which are outside of individual – or parental – control; for example, testosterone, which is linked to aggression, and oestrogen, which is linked to alertness. Other hormones affecting brain function and development include adrenalin, which acts as the ‘excitement fuel’, and cortisol, which behaves as the ‘stress signaller’. Generally teenagers could do with lower levels of these two hormones. They could, however, benefit from greater levels of dopamine, which provides feelings of happiness, and serotonin, which enables a sense of achievement.

If we think of the teenage brain as having a built-in satellite navigation system, whose voice is the guide along his or her ‘road of life’? We know that there will be ‘points of interest’ that will flag up somewhat automatically on the teenager’s navigation system, with shortest and quickest routes to those places circumventing the potentially safer routes that will have longer term gratification and reward. If we think back to the factors that are crucial for healthy teenage development, perhaps the single most important factor is a good relationship with at least one caring and available adult. Caring and available adults may take the form of parents, carers, teachers or youth leaders. These relationships play a vital role in helping the teenager to navigate through the important challenges of getting enough sleep and exercise, healthy diet and enough water, and maintaining good routines – all known to be vital to healthy brain development. But it is the positive relationship with that caring adult that will have the most significant physical effect on the teenager’s brain development. And emotionally, that adult’s ‘voice’ on the teenager’s navigation system will help him or her feel good about the life navigation choices he or she is making.

(Author: Dr Meryl Forse)

Sources/further reading:

Hughes, D. (2009). Attachment-focused parenting. New York: W.W. Norton.

Morgan, N. (2013) Blame My Brain – The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed. London: Walker Books.

Pughe, D. (2011). The owner’s guide to the teenage brain. Australia: Bookpal.