Science and Psychology are becoming more knowledgeable about the brain’s anatomy and function.  I have taken an interest in paying attention to the latest research because challenges in psychology can be explained biologically.  Let me share with you some of this research presented by the National Institute of Mental Health.  The research explains some of the reasons why our teens can be so impulsive, doing things like cutting on themselves, engaging in unprotected sex with random partners, threatening suicide, struggling with multiple mental illnesses or being challenged by illicit substance abuse.  We are challenged to see our teens experience the negative consequences of such behavior.  Ultimately, I believe that we want our loved ones to make changes so that the negative results stop.
Let me start with explaining what is “really going on in the brain or in the gray matter”.   Gray matter is essentially made up of three things, the cell bodies of neurons, the nerve fibers that project from them, and cells that support neurons. The connections between brain cells or neurons are called synapses.  More specifically, synapses are the relays over which neurons communicate with each other and are the basis of the working circuitry of the brain.  Synapses multiply rapidly in the first months of life.  A 2 year-old has about half as many synapses as an adult.  (For an idea of the complexity of the brain: a cube of brain matter, 1 millimeter on each side, can contain between 35 and 70 million neurons and an estimated 500 billion synapses.)” In terms of the volume of gray matter seen in brain images, the brain does not begin to resemble that of an adult until the early 20’s.  Brain scans suggest that different parts of the cortex mature at different rates.  Areas involved in more basic functions mature first, like the processing of information from the senses, and the part of the brain that controls movement.  On the other hand, the part of the brain that matures last is responsible for more “top-down” control, controlling impulses, and planning ahead”.   These are skills that teens have to develop to avoid high risks behaviors, and to develop into healthy, functioning adults and that is the part of the brain that matures last.
Now that you understand some of the basic biology of the brain, let me explain some of the research discoveries about the teen brain.   We have learned that in teens, the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online, and are even more active than in adults.  This might explain why teens might be more emotional, more thrill seeking, and flat out moody.  While on the contrary, “the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity”.  Such a changing balance might provide clues to a youthful appetite for novelty, and a tendency to act on impulse—without regard to risk.
We also are learning through research and simple experience that teens are still learning how to process the meaning of feelings.   They are learning to interpret emotion through different experiences.  The research from the National Institute of Mental Health stated, “Several lines of evidence suggest that the brain circuitry involved in emotional responses is changing during the teen years.  Functional brain imaging studies, for example, suggest that the responses of teens to emotionally loaded images and situations are heightened, more so than in younger children and adults”.  Teens can be overwhelmed with an increase of sensitivity to emotion or actually attracted to the increase of intense emotion.   The research continues to say that the “brain changes that underlie these patterns involve brain centers and signaling molecules that are part of the reward system with which the brain motivates behavior”.  Teens can be more in tune to the desire to activate the reward system, discarding the thoughts of moral reasoning.
I dare say that now is the time to positively influence a growing and developing teen brain to process emotion rather than waiting until the brain has matured and neurons are wired to avoid emotion, or repress it with high risk behaviors.  The research backs up the importance of teaching a teenager now, rather than later.   The National Institute of Mental Health stated “the capacity of a person to learn will never be greater than during adolescence”.  The hope is that if these neurons can be influenced while teens are growing rapidly the “change” will be long lasting.  With the rapid gains, a teen brain can more quickly develop the neural circuitry to process emotion effectively.  If a brain grows the neurons that can handle emotion and interpret feelings, the connections could possibly last a lifetime.
Now that we know that teen’s brains are deep in the process of growth.  Teenagers can ill afford to engage in illicit substance use when the formation of neurons are taking place so rapidly.  And when teens drink, they tend to drink in larger quantities than adults.   As a result of higher levels of alcohol, the growth of neurons in the teen brain are grown to handle the presence and effects of alcohol, thus creating more of a need to drink.  Therefore, younger age drinking increases the risk of alcohol dependence later in life.  Therefore, the findings on the developing teen brain should help clarify the strong relationship between youth drinking and the risk of addiction.
Teens are experiencing enormous hormonal changes that have an influence on brain function.  The research reports that reproductive hormones, can have a complex effect on the brain, and as a result influence behavior.  The reproductive hormones shape not only sex-related growth and behavior, but overall social behavior.  Hormone systems involved in the brain’s response to stress are also changing during the teen years, thus making a teen more prone to stress and more likely to reach for “the affection from a peer”, which could be in all the wrong ways.  Teens must be cautious in processing the hormonal changes so that they can develop healthy peer relationships.
Research suggests that teens have a biological tendency to want to stay up late at night.   The National Institute of Mental Health reported that a teen’s brain is biologically changing in the regulation of sleep.  This may contribute to a teens’ tendency to stay up late at night.  Yes, staying up late is partly biological in teens.  If teens are experiencing sleep deprivation and possible fatigue from sleep deprivation, inadequate sleep is a powerful contributor to irritability and depression.  Studies of children and adolescents have found that sleep deprivation can increase impulsive behavior; some researchers report finding that it is a factor in delinquency. Adequate sleep is central to physical and emotional health.
Understanding the changes taking place in the teen brain is important.  This knowledge presents an opportunity to possibly curtail the negative effects of mental illnesses that have their onset during the teen years.  Early intervention can reduce the impact of mental illnesses well into adulthood.  Research findings on the brain may also serve to help adults understand the importance of creating an environment in which teens can explore and experiment while helping them avoid behavior that is destructive to themselves and others. Teens truly do not have to resort to high risk behaviors, like self-harm, substance abuse, random sex, impulsivity, or emotional suicide.  Rather, teens can develop a happy brain.  With a happy teen brain, parents can rest a little better at night, knowing that their child’s brain is healthy.

  • Written by Steve Child, LSCW, Therapist