Adolescent Brain Development

Tips on Teens #030

While it is true that much of brain development happens in the first five years of life, a crucial part of the brain remains under-developed for a lot longer than people realize. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain just behind your forehead. Around age eleven, this area of the brain is just starting its maturation process, and doesn’t finish maturing until roughly twenty-five years of age.

25 YEARS OLD! That’s a long time. What exactly does a prefrontal cortex do?

The prefrontal cortex is known as the area of “executive functioning” within the brain. It’s what helps us act as thoughtful, rational adults who make wise and prudent decisions. Below is a list of executive functions that happen in the prefrontal cortex. This is what an immature and underdeveloped prefrontal cortex can NOT consistently do during adolescence:

  • Manage impulse control  
  • Effectively differentiate conflicting thoughts
  • Compare options and determine the best course of action
  • Recognize cause-and-effect within choices
  • Work toward a defined goal with an awareness of the steps to get there
  • Suppress urges that can lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes

Yikes! You're right! My kid can't do any of those things and he's about to go to college next year! What else is going on in that brain of his?

It's good a thing that our brain doesn't stop maturing at age five, however, we need to have patience for the rest of it. Everyday, there is so much happening in that hard head of his.  All of those thoughts, plans and emotions help to shape the adult who he will grow into. The challenging part is accepting how long it might take until your kid finally starts making some choices that you agree with.

The part of the brain that is finishing it's development just as the prefrontal cortex is getting started is the limbic system. This is a more primitive part of our brain, and its role is essential for our continued survival as a species. That whole thing about Fight or Flight happens in this brain system. Think about the adrenaline rush you get when doing something really exciting, followed by your intense craving for more. Now imagine those feelings and desires with very little ability to regulate them. That's the part of the brain that is in full bloom. Welcome to adolescence!

There are brain-imaging studies that show that risk-taking and processing strong emotions intensifies the activation of the limbic system. In other words, your teen's risky behavior and BIG emotions are fueled because the limbic system is getting an adrenaline shot. And the more fire you add to the pot (limbic system), the harder it is to control (risky behavior and BIG emotions).

So basically I have to live with high drama and no common sense until she's 25?

Well, it sounds painful but, yes. You could say that our limbic system is in charge of our emotional life, and it’s running at full power during the teen years. Our prefrontal cortex is in charge of rational thought; that's the part that has only just begun to mature. Seems like some horrible trick being played on parents, doesn't it? Now is the time when your parenting gets really tricky. It means giving enough space for your kid to explore all of these intense emotions and more than likely make some really knucklehead judgment calls. It also means you need to be close enough and connected enough with her to help when she's really got herself in a jam.

Having a really strong emotional incentive, such as gaining needed acceptance from friends or really wanting the star football player to notice her makes your teenager stay in that primitive mindset. And that's exactly when poor choices are made – when your teen is being fueled by emotions that she does not have any experience handling. You have to remember that the kind of sadness, anger, or angst that your child might have felt as an eight year old is completely different than having those same emotions as a teenager.

She is living with a constant tug-o-war going on inside her head. The highly fueled, mostly matured limbic system vs. the completely immature prefrontal cortex. Guess who wins?

Is that why they act like crazy people? Give me an example of this brain "tug-o-war" you mention.

Imagine fifteen-year-old Sam has a Biology final tomorrow morning. He’s studying and genuinely wants to do well. Suddenly he receives a text that all his friends are getting together online for the ultimate tournament of their favorite massive-multiplayer-online player game (MMOPG) tonight at midnight. He knows it's against your rules.  He knows he really needs this time to study.  He knows his grade is completely dependent on how he does on this monstrous test; yet... ALL of his friends are going to be playing at the same time! An EPIC adventure that he must be a part of!

So after you’re sound asleep, he sneaks downstairs, logs on the computer and plays the tournament of a lifetime with his buddies until 5:30am. After routinely being crushed by his enemies, he despondently creeps back into his room… defeated! Unfortunately, Sam doesn’t fall asleep until ten minutes before his alarm goes off.

He barely gets out of the house on time for the carpool in a groggy, zombie-like stupor. Uncharacteristically, in front of the other carpool kids in the backseat, Sam picks a pointless argument with you on the way to school due to his lack of sleep and disappointment. Of course, he bombs the final.

No Way! My kid would NEVER do such a.... Alright, maybe he would. What could he possibly be thinking?

That’s just it… Sam wasn’t thinking, not clearly anyway. Let’s break it down like this:

  1. His limbic system was intensely activated by the powerful incentive to have great fun with his friends while also feeling powerful within his computer generated fantasy world.
  2. This immensely powerful emotional stimulation overpowered Sam’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex clouding his judgment.
    1. His inability to control his impulses made him jump at the chance to experience “the best game of his life.”
    2. Sam overlooked the conflicting thoughts in his head between continuing to study, getting a good night’s sleep and acing his Biology final vs. feeling like a hero by leading his friends to victory in a fantastical tournament.
    3. Failing to recognize that his lack of sleep would greatly impact his ability to focus and recall his previous night’s studying is simply his prefrontal cortex not working at the level of a fully matured adult. This is totally age-appropriate behavior.
  3. While he had two worthy goals: acing his biology test and having fun with friends, he struggled to balance the two and failed to accomplish either. Poor Sam! He didn't quite realize how his lack of sleep would affect his gaming prowess either.

So how can I stop my teenager from getting herself into these kinds of situations?

There is no way to completely stop your teenager from making these kinds of mistakes. It is a natural part of life. We adults make similar mistakes too, there are just fewer people watching (i.e. I really need to lose weight but I can't turn down a warm cream cheese bagel sitting in front of me). Perhaps a more mindful and sensitive question from parents would be…

How do I help my teenager learn how to process these intense emotions and develop a greater awareness of the rational side of her brain when it's hardly even "awake"?

That’s a wonderful question! Most importantly: make sure to maintain a relationship based on mutual respect, patience and compassion with your teenager. As I mentioned above, now is the time when that connection that you worked hard on building when she was younger is really going to be challenged. Her budding independence will want to push you away, so that she can try to make these "grown up" decisions on her own. That is part of her learning curve, she is testing herself and learning how to expand her own boundaries of individuation. The more you demonstrate trust and respect, the more likely she will return it to you and feel safe to come to you for help. If you are fortunate enough to have earned that trust, focus more on listening than lecturing. Perhaps all she needs to know is that you understand her and trust her to have the self-reflection needed to learn from her choices.

Doesn't it feel good to be able to talk through a problem out loud to fully understand all of your options and all of the ramifications? If she comes to you to talk, let her talk. She didn't come to you to be told what to do. For example, let's say she tells you that she'd really like to get a tattoo. You HATE this idea and want to do everything you can to stop it. Use all of your strength to keep from completely bulldozing that idea. Do NOT just shut her down and tell her that she is forbidden from getting a tattoo, end of story! Let her talk it through so she can figure out for herself that it may be a hasty choice. Perhaps ask her what kind of tattoo she would like to get and what the meaning is behind it. You might learn more about your daughter while earning her trust through your compassion and patience. At that point, she may be more willing to listen to a compromise of waiting until she’s 18, or 25 or 88 to make sure that tattoo is something she really wants the rest of her life. The more she practices this kind of back and forth reasoning, the better she will get at it.

So, in a nutshell, what is my incentive for approaching it this way?

Your teenager will be able to make these decisions based on rational thought more quickly and with more confidence as she gains more experience. Your gentle and careful guidance is there to help clear up some of the overwhelming confusion, not make decisions for her.

A wise person once said something like this:

Poor judgment leads to bad choices
Bad choices lead to life experience
Life experience leads to wisdom
Wisdom leads to good choices

Remember that adolescence is a temporary mental disorder and it will pass within a few years.


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