Be Informed: The Teen Brain

In my last editorial I shared about vaping, its health risks and harm to young people. In this editorial I am unpacking some of the complexities that make up the teenage brain; giving further context to why certain activities and behaviours (such as vaping, social media use, swearing/poor language use) pose an increased challenge for our young people. 

This information serves to bring understanding to our role as parents and teachers, and highlights the importance of partnering together to guide our young people through one of the most challenging developmental times of their life. 

Use it or lose it...

A child’s brain has a massive growth spurt at around 18 months of age. By the time that child is age 6 their brain is about 90-95% of adult size. However, the brain still requires a significant amount of ‘remodelling’ before it can function as an adult brain. This brain remodelling happens most intensively during adolescence and continues into their mid 20’s.

The main change occurring in the teenage brain is ‘pruning’. This is the time when unused connections in the thinking and processing part of the brain (the grey matter) are ‘pruned away’. At the same time, other connections are being strengthened. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. 

The pruning process begins at the back of the brain, with the front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) being remodelled last. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, which helps teens to learn how to solve problems, set goals, consider consequences to actions and control their feelings and impulses.

The pruning stage of brain development is also when thinking patterns are formed, addictions can set in, and a teenager’s self-perception is also being challenged. 

Some ways adults can help: 

Help! My brain has been hijacked by my amygdala...

Due to the fact that our teenagers have an under-developed prefrontal cortex (that thoughtful, logical part of the brain), their actions are likely to be guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour.

Teenagers are more likely to act on impulse, misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, get into accidents of all kinds, get involved in fights and engage in dangerous or risky behaviour. They are less likely to think before they act, pause to consider consequences or change their dangerous behaviours.

These brain differences don't mean that young people can't make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn't mean that they shouldn't be held responsible for their actions. However, an awareness of these differences can help us all to understand, anticipate, and manage the behaviour of adolescents.

Some ways adults can help:

Driven by high risk and social reward...

God has hard-wired us all to want to live in community with others. We all desire love and acceptance... Well, if you throw in an under-developed frontal cortex and an over-active amygdala – you have a wonderful recipe for peer pressure and poor choices which are driven by social reward (those positive emotions received in any social context). 

Decisions made by adolescents are driven by the level of immediate social reward they will get from the action. They are more sensitive to acceptance and rejection by peers and are more likely to take risks when observed by friends. And because the social reward is such a high currency for our young people, most teens may not think about the consequences of their actions. 

Some ways adults can help: 

In my role I get to see teenagers at their worst and at their best, to see their creative, inquisitive, passionate, and totally unpredictable minds at work. They are awkward and sensitive, they say inappropriate things, and they test the boundaries. But what a joy and privilege it is to know that I serve God alongside a team of wonderful Secondary Teachers who are part of this daily transformative work of teaching, mentoring and loving adolescents through some of the most vulnerable years of their lives.