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Understanding your teenager’s brain

Posted on 30 September 2015

As our children enter puberty, their minds and bodies go through huge emotional and physical changes.

The first growth spurt in their brain occurs in the first three years of life, whilst during middle childhood their brains settle into a slower pattern of growth. The second growth spurt occurs during puberty and throws our teenagers’ brains into chaos. No wonder their emotions can sometimes be extreme and challenging!

Some parts of the brain are still not fully developed by this stage either, such as the frontal part of the brain that controls reasoning. This might explain why some teenagers find decision making difficult, or why the decisions they make might not be the most advisable.

Familiar with the teenage ‘grunt’? Interestingly, the speech area of the brain undergoes more development in the teenage years and, for a time it is controlled by a part of the brain that can be very reactive to ‘gut reactions’ or fear of danger. It is not until the later teenage years that the control switches to the part of the brain that can reason effectively. This pattern of control is also the same for the way teenagers read facial expressions. These changes may explain why teenagers can be spontaneous, speaking without appearing to think and why they are neurologically far less accurate than adults at interpreting them.

Teenagers’ body chemistry changes when they enter puberty and this affects the amount of sleep they need and the time their body tells them to sleep. Their body clock changes so that they go to sleep later, usually after 11pm and can easily sleep for 12 hours. During this time their body is releasing a hormone needed to grow. Up to 80 percent of growth hormone is released during sleep. When the teenager wakes up they are usually very hungry. This is very similar to a young baby who, having slept for a long period overnight can be very hungry when they wake.

In addition to sleep there are other areas of a teenager’s development that are also affected by the way their brain is developing. It is well known that teenagers take more risks and are influenced by what their friends or other teenagers think of them.

We now understand more about why this happens in the teenage years and into the early twenties. In order to become independent adults we need something within us to drive us to seek out new experiences and new social relationships in the adult world. The teenage brain produces higher levels of the ‘feel good’ hormone, dopamine, encouraging the young person to look for experiences that will produce these levels.

As a consequence, the reward and pleasure centres in the brain can be very powerful in the teenager and at times can override the thinking part of their brain that is not quite ready yet. We can think of the teenage brain as having the accelerator on before the braking system has been completed.

This mismatch of development in the teenage brain can mean that at times while teenagers might know what is right, there are also powerful influences that mean they may react before thinking.

As adults we might be able to make use of this knowledge by focusing on the rewards and less on negative points even if these are obvious to us. Saying something that links to the reward and pleasure parts of their brain can be helpful. For example: ’I’d really like you to be able to have fun with your friends, so I need to know you’re safe’ instead of ‘where are you going? When will you be back? Who are you going with?’

As teenagers attempt to meet the challenges of fitting in, it has been discovered that there is a mismatch in how well they can make sense of and react to situations where they might feel rejected by other people. For example, if they are not included by their group because someone has forgotten to contact them they may understand why but also feel as if it is the end of the world.

You may not be able to change what has happened, but the way you respond to your teenager can help their brain development. If your mature brain remains calm you can help the teenage brain to cope with the strong painful feelings so they become calm and their thinking part of their brain can take control.

As your teenager emerges from puberty, the different parts of their brain will begin to work together so that they are more able to understand their feelings and make thoughtful decisions.

If a young child has had good emotional experiences in their early years, the challenges of brain development in the teenage years will land on a strong foundation. When the teenage growth spurt occurs they are likely to need extra support from sensitive adults, so they stay calm and can allow the development of reasoning and positive decision making to happen.

Dr Rebecca Johnson

Consultant Clinical Psychologist

To read more and download free leaflets, go to www.inourplace.co.uk/learn

There’s also information about paid online courses from an NHS Trust available to help understand children’s behaviour and to support them with their emotions.