The Science Behind the Teenage Mind

Often when adults talk about today’s teenagers, you hear complaints that today’s teens are worse than when they were young. But practically every generation has said that about younger generations. Even Socrates bemoaned about the young people of his day, decrying their bad manners and disrespect for authority. Sound familiar? 

The Disconnect

Difficulties with teens are far from being a new issue, and there is a scientific reason for this. While teens, especially toward the end of high school, look like adults, their brains are still not fully mature. This disconnect between the inside (brain) and outside (appearance) of teens can lead to misunderstandings and frustration on the part of parents, teachers, and other caregivers. It’s almost as if adults have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager!Teenagers can act so mature and intelligent, and then out of nowhere, they will do or say something that makes absolutely no sense to adults. It may leave you questioning their ability to manage their own lives responsibly when they are on their own after high school.But it’s important to understand that because their brains aren’t fully developed, you should expect these swings between maturity and seemingly immature actions. 

Today’s Adolescents

Today’s tweens and teens, just like all the generations before them, are not only dealing with the effects of puberty, but they are also trying to figure out who they are in a world that demands so much of them. There is a lot of pressure put on them to behave in a way that society deems acceptable while also navigating the demands to achieve academically or in other areas of their life, such as sports or music. Add in peer pressure, navigating social circles, and dating, and you can begin to see why it can be difficult to manage all the pressure in their lives. Tweens and teens are essentially navigating through an ever-changing social landscape while still trying to understand their identity, all while their brains aren’t fully developed! It’s no wonder why so many adolescents are stressed out!

The Brain Science Behind the Behavior

So what is going on in your teens or tweens brain? We mentioned that a teen’s brain isn’t fully mature yet. In fact, the brain does not fully develop until a person is in their mid-twenties! That means your tween or teen’s brain is still under massive construction. Specifically, it is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that isn’t fully developed until early adulthood. The PFC deals with reasoning, self-control, judgment, decision making, logic, and creativity. This area of the brain also controls a person’s understanding of social norms and the consequences of their behaviors. So what part of the brain are adolescents working from? Teens and tweens often rely on the amygdala to regulate their emotions and impulses. The amygdala is what activates our flight or fight response. It also is responsible for strong emotions, such as fear, sadness, and anger. In fact, it develops a long-term recall of memories connected to these intense emotions, which is what develops a recurring fear or alertness around a specific event. That is why sometimes their actions can make you say, “What were you thinking?”As the PFC develops more, there is a battle going on inside the adolescent mind between it and the amygdala, with the amygdala often winning out over the underdeveloped PFC.

How You Can Help Teens Develop

Because of their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, it’s important to guide tweens and teens. Adolescents need a coach that counsels them to develop new coping skills through practice, as well as encouragement and positive reinforcement. Parents and caregivers should set the structure, guidelines, and rules and penalties so that adolescents can learn that their behavior has consequences. And when the world becomes scary or stressful, the coping mechanisms you teach them can help them regulate their intense emotions. With this understanding of your teen’s brain, this will arm you with patience and understanding for your teen. By guiding them through this challenging development stage of life, you can set them up for success and resilience in adulthood, helping them figure out how to take on any of life’s challenges!