The Teenage Brain
Doesn’t it seem to you at times, that living with a teenager under one roof is all about… making it out alive? If yes, welcome to the club! Impulsive, immature, crazy, and hormone-addled teenagers are just the worst! They make everything in life about them, they can’t figure out how to take care of their laundry, and they take so many risks, it’s mind-boggling. We parents can consider ourselves pretty lucky if our kids survive and stay out of jail. Right?
Well… Not really. This is the stereotypical description of the adolescent years, but it turns out we are selling our adolescents short and, frankly, being quite insulting to their natural development.
The western culture has, for decades now, fed everyone a narrative of the teenage years being a time of “raging hormones” and “uncontrollable impulsivity.” The early studies on adolescents focused on hormones’ role in the developmental changes we see, beginning around – but not always at the same time as – puberty. Perhaps, the first psychologist to put forth the idea of violent hormones was G. Stanley Hall in his book titled Adolescence (1904), and Anna Freud echoed this idea of adolescence being a state of emotional turmoil due to hormonal changes flooding the teenager’s body (Peterson, 1988). With such famous and established names in the field of psychology, vigorously propagating these not-so-well researched ideas, it is easy to see why the public would latch onto them. In our modern lives, we see the repercussions everywhere, from TV shows we’re streaming, to self-help books for teens that we’re desperately browsing in search of a solution. We don’t realize that none of this research was based on scientific evidence.
This idea that adolescence is a time of turmoil, hardship and suffering has had quite a few negative consequences not only for adolescents but also for their parents. When we see adolescence as a time of “storm and stress” (Hall, 1904) that needs to be rushed through and survived, we discount all of the beautiful outcomes of this part of life.
Believing this harmful theory of emotional turmoil can also prevent adolescents from receiving the support and services they may need (Kipke, 1999), by blinding us to our teens’ cries for help. Not only that, but it can be damaging to an adolescent’s sense of self, to be labeled “crazy” or “immature,” when they are behaving in developmentally appropriate ways. Let’s stop labeling and demoralizing our teens and start empowering them.
Wait a moment… if the ideas of raging hormones and surviving the storm aren’t borne out by science, what is to blame for the different behavior we see in adolescents? Why do they act in such an undecidedly not-adult way? What is making them tick?
New scientific research is giving us some surprising answers. Further studies into neuroscience, specifically adolescent neuroscience, have shed some light on what is happening in the brains of our children, teenagers, and students (and counseling clients!). The most significant insight into adolescent development came from fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies, which looked at which parts of the brain were active during specific assigned tasks. Then, there came the sMRI (structural magnetic resonance imaging) that gave us a look at the structure of the adolescent brain.
The findings have been shocking. The studies began to show that adolescents start to lose synaptic connections, sometimes letting go of over 50% of these connections in particular regions of the brain (Rakic, Bourgeois, & Goldman-Rakic, 1994). And no, this isn’t due to drug use or repeated head injuries suffered during fights. This is due to the brain’s natural process called pruning. Unlike in childhood, adolescents don’t need to know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING to survive, so their minds begin to lose the things that they don’t use or need anymore.
But this isn’t the end of the story. The second important thing that the scientists discovered was that some new connections in the brain of adolescents were growing—and some of these already existing connections were not getting stronger, but also faster. This process is called myelination. Myelin is a fatty white substance that coats the axons of a neuron. When a neural connection becomes myelinated, the speed and efficiency of information flow across that connection can be accelerated up to 3000 times (Siegel, 2014; Spear, 2013). That’s way more efficient!
So, what does the existence of processes such as pruning and myelination tell us? That our adolescents have brains that are like a construction zone. Some areas are being demolished, and some areas are being rebuilt or refurbished. This remodeling is the key to all of the behaviors we see in adolescents AND all of the myths we have built around them.