Mind Matters — Adolescents

Parents complain about adolescents. (And adolescents complain about parents, but note that story for another day.)

So the perennial question of why teens act the way they do may have some answers. Often the question is explained away with “it’s raging hormones”, but the science is more complicated than that. By employing the imaging techniques that are now possible, neuroscience is gaining ground in explaining how the brain develops. The July Harvard Mental Health Letter points to the ongoing research regarding the adolescent developing brain and suggests “a new reason for the clashes between teenagers and their environment. Unsettled moods and unsettling behavior may be rooted in uneven brain development.”

It is found that adolescents, while they can understand intellectually that actions have consequences, when in a situation in which emotions come into play, rationality does not reign. Their good judgment can get overwhelmed in the moment, and peer pressure plays a part. Research comparing adolescent with adult behavior in simulated risk situations found that the adolescents, but not the adults, were prone to take more risk when friends were watching.

Brain research recognizes that the human brain is continually developing at least into a person’s twenties. The circuits most important in teen brain development link our judging, deliberating selves, the prefrontal cortex, with the part of the brain, the midbrain, that is more reflexive to the moment (where addictive drugs and romantic love hold sway).

Some of the highlights of this research thus speaks volumes for how we might reconsider adolescence today. The Supreme Court perhaps did consider these findings when it declared it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to execute juveniles under age eighteen.

And consider also that these brain studies reveal that adolescent brains become addicted to nicotine more quickly and with a lower dosage than do adults.

Hormones do have a profound effect on adolescents, but these hormonal changes are more than “meets the eye” as it were! Hormones directly affect brain development. Part of the hormonal changes in the brain we observe at home are, for example, how adolescents stay up late and can’t get up in the morning. Their biological clocks have been reset, much to the chagrin of those less hormonally driven and whose brains are no longer in rapid fire development.

Of course, this is not to take teens off the hook: They do need to learn responsibility and to learn mature behavior. Life is a complexity of nature (brain, genetics, hormones) and nurture. However, the study of your nature all the more points out how nurturing the environment, family, and society must be to support the developing mind of the adolescent.