When I work with adolescents and their families, a question I frequently hear from parents is: “What were they thinking?” It generally comes as a response to something their child did or said, poor judgment they have shown, a risk they took or a seemingly unprovoked emotional outburst.   

Certainly, adolescents and teens can behave in ways that adults find confusing, frustrating or frightening.   

But as neuroscientists have learned more about the brain in recent decades, we’ve gotten a clearer picture of why young people act the way they do. Their brain is going through immense changes that are normal and healthy parts of development. And, while we may not like some of what we see, these behaviors are preparing them for adulthood.  

Growth & Development  

The adolescent years are a time when young people explore their identity, become more independent, start learning about and nurturing intimate relationships, build self-confidence, develop social skills and prepare for their future. Their brain is transforming to handle these many changes.  

In an article titled “The Adolescent Brain is Literally Awesome,” the authors explain that adolescents have brains more capable of change than adults and, unlike children, adolescents have a greater ability to shape the brain’s development. The brain changes, adapts and responds during this time, allowing for immense intellectual and emotional growth.  

Research shows that adolescents have heightened information processing abilities and social sensitivity that help them navigate their complex social world. Social experiences really matter and have long-lasting effects on how an adolescent connects with others. During this time, young people tend to become more conscious of their community, how their actions impact it and the desire to support it.  

As new connections form between neurons, the adolescent brain goes through a process of cleaning house or “remodeling,” as neuroscientists describe it. The brain starts to consolidate and refine the information it has collected, getting rid of (or “pruning”) the connections it no longer needs while reinforcing the important ones.  

The trial and error that happen as adolescents and teens learn from their experiences help the brain identify the connections it needs to lose and the ones it needs to strengthen. Granted, this exploration and discovery also involves risk and sometimes concerning behaviors.  But it also allows teens to develop their passions and talents. Brain imaging shows that they can influence their brain development with repetitive patterns of behavior. With repetition, the neural pathways in the brain will shape themselves according to that activity, research shows. In other words, when a young person pursues their passions in sports, academics and other areas through regular practice, they grow and strengthen those parts of the brain.  

Risk & Reward 

While the brain is fully grown by the early teen years, the front part, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature (not until the mid to late 20s). This area of the brain is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses. As these skills are still developing, teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors without considering the potential consequences. This is also why impulsivity and emotional dysregulation are common in teens.  

Simultaneously, neuroscientists have found that the reward system in the brain, shows marked changes during adolescence and is highly reactive to cues of value in that period. According to B.J. Casey, Ph.D., director of the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain (FAB) lab at Yale University, “It’s really banging away, while the prefrontal cortex is not quite fully developed.” So, the potential long-term consequences of driving fast, excessive drinking or unprotected sex, are no match for the immediate gratification that these activities promise.  

Furthermore, social rewards are among the most powerful cues of value during this time of heightened social sensitivity. Therefore, peer approval and peer pressure (the desire to be cool) can present a significant barrier to rational thought.  

Certainly, not every adolescent is a risk-taker, vulnerable to peer pressure or emotionally dysregulated all the time and most teenagers grow into healthy adults. However, understanding the processes that are at work in their brains may help parents support their children as they navigate this tumultuous time.  

Some things for parents to keep in mind: 

  1. Despite all appearances, research shows that parents have a huge influence on their adolescents. They may not look like they are listening, but they are. Know your influence and use it to help them make healthy choices.  
  1. Teens and adolescents have completely different thought processes. Help them think things through, present the facts, explain your point of view (without judgment). 
  1. Your teen may be putting you through the wringer, but they are going through a lot. Approach with love and empathy.  
  1. Parents need to give their teens the freedom to explore. Even if it’s scary, their experiences and the lessons they learn from them are key to their development and growing into good decision-makers as adults.   
  1. Create an environment where teens feel comfortable talking about decisions. Take the time to pay attention and do more listening than talking.  

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