Our brains change dramatically during adolescence. New research demonstrates how we can use this transformation to help teens reach their full potential.
Terri Apter, a psychologist, recalls explaining the teenage brain to an 18-year-old: “So that’s why I feel like my head’s exploding!” the teen exclaimed happily.
Parents and teachers of teenagers may be familiar with the feeling of dealing with a highly combustible mind. The adolescent years can feel like a shocking transformation, a turning inside out of the mind and soul that makes the person unrecognisable from the child they once were. There are the uncontrollable mood swings, identity crises and a desire for social approval, a newfound taste for risk and adventure, and an apparent inability to consider the long-term consequences of their actions.
In the midst of this confusion, adolescents are routinely evaluated for their academic potential, with long-term consequences. Nobody’s fate is sealed at the age of 18, but an excellent academic record will make it far easier to gain admission to a prestigious university, which will broaden your employment options. However, the emotional ups and downs of adolescence can make it extremely difficult for them to reach their intellectual potential.
Scientists have only recently been able to chart neural changes during this critical period of development and decode the mysteries of the teenage brain.
These fascinating new discoveries not only help to explain why teenagers feel and act the way they do. They also demonstrate that some of the characteristics that adults find difficult or perplexing in teenagers can be turned into a strength and used to acquire skills and insights while the brain is still malleable.
After all, adolescence is a period of rapid cognitive development. Teenagers are expanding on the fundamentals they learned as children to develop sophisticated and mature ways of thinking, such as more abstract reasoning and a more nuanced “theory of mind.”
“Fifty years ago, it would not have been seen as necessary for students to know about puberty in schools,” says clinical psychologist John Coleman, author of The Teacher and the Teenage Brain. “And I believe that in 20 or 30 years, we’ll be wondering why we didn’t help students understand what’s going on in their heads. It can make a significant difference.”
Understanding the teenage brain
It’s no surprise that many teens throughout history have complained about being misunderstood. Our traditional explanations for adolescent behaviour have been exasperatingly simplistic. Their recklessness, rebelliousness, impulsivity, and general irritability can be easily attributed to factors such as ignorance and immaturity, as well as “raging” hormones and increased sex drive.
Their complaints of emotional anguish are frequently met with mockery. As neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore recently stated in her book Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain: “Mocking and demonising other segments of society is not socially acceptable… Strangely, mocking and demonising teenagers is acceptable.”
Even the more scientific theories painted an unflattering picture of adolescent life, which only added to their sense of alienation. In the 1950s, psychoanalyst Anna Freud proposed that teenagers are attempting to “divorce” their parents, severing their ties to the family in order to move on with their lives. According to Apter, a psychologist and author of The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Raising Adolescents, the idea was that “the teen was working to evict the parent from their internal furniture.”
Adolescents may appear rebellious, but they frequently seek their parents’ approval.
While these previous explanations may have some validity, they fail to take into account the nuances of most adolescent experiences. Apter’s interviews with teenagers and their parents indicate that adolescents frequently crave their parents’ approval and acceptance. So, while they desire independence, it is not at any cost. Such findings are incompatible with the divorce theory.
Apter contends that if we are to assist teenagers, we must pay closer attention to the nuances of what they are actually experiencing, including the enormous social challenges that they are navigating. This entails acknowledging the embarrassment that may result from physical changes to the body and shifting social expectations placed on them.
In such cases, they may begin to feel alienated from themselves.
At the same time, we must recognise the anatomical changes that are taking place within the brain. Scientists can now peer inside this “black box” throughout the lifespan thanks to the development of functional MRI scans.
Early childhood, is, of course, the period of greatest change. In the first few months of life, the brain builds many connections between neurons, before pruning back the redundant neural pathways, which allows for more efficient networks. This innate “plasticity” means the young child’s brain is particularly malleable, allowing them to go from a bawling baby to a walking, talking toddler.
In many areas of the brain – such as those involved in sensory processing – these networks tend to stabilise long before adolescence, which makes it harder to learn certain perceptual or motor skills, such as language or music, after the early “sensitive period”.
The frontal cortex shows a different trajectory, however, and it continues to build and then prune networks throughout puberty and adolescence and into early adulthood. In the frontal and parietal lobes, the brain also reinforces the most important connections by adding a fatty insulating sheath – known as myelin – which improves the transmission of signals. In brain scans, this shows up as a noticeable increase in “white matter” over adolescence. These developing areas are important for a host of skills, including emotional regulation, maintaining attention, problem solving and abstract reasoning.
While teen brains may have already lost some of the malleability of early childhood, this continued development means that they are still very sensitive to intellectual stimulation with a huge capacity for learning. This allows them to build on the academic skills and knowledge that they had started to develop in childhood and develop more sophisticated ways of experiencing the world.
Unfortunately, the neurological and psychological changes taking place may sometimes feel overwhelming, a fact that can go a long way to explaining some of the behaviours that cause so much disruption at school and at home.
Rebels with a cause
Consider adolescent risk-taking, rule-breaking, and general rebellion.
According to brain imaging studies, the regions of the brain associated with reward develop faster than those associated with inhibition and self-control. They have higher dopamine signalling activity – a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and curiosity – on average than adults and younger children, with larger spikes when they experience something novel or exciting.
It’s no surprise, then, that teens are more likely to be tempted by new experiences. One result may be rash and risky decisions, but this curiosity may also bring benefits:
Teens can try out a variety of experiences that will help guide their personal decisions as adults. (For example, rushing into an unsuitable romance may help them learn what type of partner would suit them better.)
Interestingly, data suggests that today’s teens may not be as easily tempted by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as previous generations, but their generally more open-minded attitude will still be evident in many other aspects of their lives, such as their fascination with new technology. Teens’ tenacity in pursuing their own interests – as well as their disregard for authority – can even fuel technological, social, and political change. “You have a new generation that is going to push boundaries – you have a lot of inventiveness, adventure, and creativity,” Apter says.
This may be frustrating for parents and teachers who would prefer that the teenagers in their care spend more time studying.
However, when channelled into meaningful causes, this fearless energy can help invigorate the rest of society, such as when addressing climate change or other global issues. Even teenagers and young adults have bravely fought dictatorships while older generations sat back and watched.