Your teen’s brain has some growing up to do

December 06, 2018 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Ever wonder what happened to your sweet child once the teen years hit?

Teenagers are known to behave in impulsive, irrational and dangerous ways. While adults think things through and consider consequences to their actions, teens usually don’t.

What happens in the brain during adolescence may explain the difference.

Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain that develops early and is responsible for immediate reactions like fear and aggressive behavior. But another area of the brain (the frontal cortex) that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act doesn’t develop until later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood — until the mid- to late-20s.

Pictures of the brain in action show that adolescents' brains work differently than adults when they make decisions or solve problems. It makes sense since the part of their brain responsible for planning, prioritizing and controlling impulses hasn’t fully matured yet.

This also explains why teens’ actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive part of their brain and less by the thoughtful, logical part. They are more likely to act impulsively, misread emotions, and engage in dangerous or risky behavior. They are less likely to think before they act or consider the consequences of their actions.

The teen years are also characterized by risk-taking and reward-seeking behaviors. For some, this means a first experience with alcohol and drugs. But research has shown that exposure to drugs and alcohol during the teen years can change or delay these brain developments, and the risks for addiction are high during this time period.

All these big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why adolescence is the time when many mental health disorders — such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and eating disorders —emerge, says to the National Institute of Mental Health. The onset of mental illness typically occurs in late teens, early adolescence.

True, adolescence is a vulnerable time for teens. They are more suspectible to addiction, mental health disorders and the effects of stress. Fortunately, the teen brain is resilient. It is ready to learn and adapt. And, most teens go on to become healthy adults.

Also, these brain differences don't mean that young people can't make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong, says the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Teens still need to be held responsible for their actions.

Some changes in the brain during this important phase of development may actually help protect against long-term mental health disorders. Research suggests that creating a safe, loving and nurturing environment throughout a child’s life has profound effects on brain development.

What can else can parents do for their teenagers? In addition to spending time with your teen and knowing what’s going on in their lives, encourage your teen to adopt good lifestyle choices, including:

  • Nurture relationships with others.
  • Have creative outlets.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Get 6 tips for talking to your teen about drugs and alcohol.
  • Practice mindfulness and other stress-reducing techniques.
  • Get good sleep. Many teens stay up late and struggle to get up in the morning. Although it may seem like your teen is lazy, science shows that teens need more sleep than children and adults (about 9-10 hours a night). A lack of sleep can increase impulsivity, irritability and depression.

If you notice something isn’t quite right with your teen, don’t ignore it. When left untreated, mental health issues in teens can lead to issues at school, family conflicts, substance abuse and even thoughts of death. Early therapy and support can lead to a healthier adulthood.

At least one in five children and adolescents suffer from a behavioral health disorder. Early intervention is important to the recovery process. At Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, we have experts who specialize in the treatment of adolescents. Learn more about our adolescent program.

Related blogs:

6 tips for talking to your teen about drugs and alcohol

Signs your teen may be abusing alcohol

Never a reason: talking with your teen about depression

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