Judgment Call: Maturity, Emotions and the Teenage Brain

Adolescence can be a rocky time for teens and parents alike. This stage in life is naturally a turbulent one that is often blamed on an influx of hormones. However, adults and teens might be surprised to find out that hormones are only part of the story. Teen brain development is really controlling the intense changes that teens experience.

What Happens to a Teen’s Brain

When children are born, their brains overproduce gray matter until they are about a year-and-a-half old. This intense stage of development allows babies to adjust to their world and make connections to allow them healthy growth and function.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) discovered that the brain once again overproduces gray matter during adolescence, providing extra synapses to accompany increased hormone production. In addition, the brain of an adolescent matures from the back to the front.

In the back of the brain, involuntary actions such as breathing, heart rate, and blinking are controlled. Moving from the back to the front, the brain controls and interprets hormone levels, emotion, sensory information, movement, memory, and learning. The front of the brain is where the brain processes risk, practicing judgment and self-control, and it is the last part of the brain to mature.

Parents Really Just Don’t Understand

Probably every adolescent has at one time thought and even said out loud to their parents, “You just don’t understand!” And teens might be surprised to learn that they are right.

Teens experience development that is so intense that it rivals the first two years of life. Everything changes for a teen: body development, hormone levels, sleep patterns, eating habits, social pressures, and school requirements. These are amongst the reasons why teens require so much sleep. Adolescents are going through so much intense development, and they need the restorative power that sleep provides and give their brains a bit of a break.

Parents, however, are adults with fully developed brains. For the most part, parents look at the world in terms of safety and natural consequences. Because the front part of their brains is fully developed, adults miss exciting opportunities and are less likely to take risks because they see all of the things that possibly could go wrong.

Teens, however, are more naturally more adventurous. The frontal lobe is not fully developed until about twenty-five years of age, so adolescents and young adults are more likely to take risks that seem crazy to adults. This tendency to take risks can also be combined with the vulnerability to peer pressure that teens experience. Unfortunately, this can lead to trouble.

Teens Need to Protect Their Brains

Adolescents protecting their most valuable assets – their brains – from injury goes beyond wearing helmets while skateboarding down a set of stairs. Teens need to be aware that because they are more likely to get roped into using alcohol and drugs, this kind of risky behavior has serious, long-term consequences.

At this stage of life, a teen’s brain acts like a sponge, soaking up information and experiences at an amazing rate. This quality is referred to as plasticity and provides teens with unparalleled abilities to learn information and master skills. This is an ideal time in life for adolescents to learn languages, travel and experience different cultures, and practice different musical instruments. However, this quality also allows a teen’s brain to solidify negative habits, like smoking, drinking alcohol, and taking drugs.

While parents “really don’t understand” what their adolescent children are going through, they can honestly say that they have lived through this difficult stage in life. Although the going might be rough, it is essential for teens and parents to keep communicating and supporting each other through this intense time in an adolescent’s life.