5 Totally Bonkers Things Happening to Your Teenager’s Brain That All Parents Should Know

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The tumult of the teen years is enough to strike fear in the heart of any parent, but are adolescents really inscrutable creatures, prone to unhinged behavior? (Answer: No and…kinda.) We spoke to teen whisperer Darby Fox to get the full scoop on what’s really going on inside the teenage brain, and how you can use that knowledge to parent more effectively.

Meet the Expert:

1. The Rational Part of the Teen Brain Isn’t Done Developing

Most people know that a teenager’s brain is still developing, but Fox says it’s particularly important for parents to understand the order of events when it comes to brain development during these years—specifically the fact that the brain develops from back to front.

What does that mean, exactly? “Because the brain develops from back to front, the prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to fully mature—and that’s the region responsible for complex cognition, which includes reasoning, decision-making and impulse control,” explains Fox. So if you ever feel incredulous about something exceptionally stupid your teen did, the expert recommends that you hold back a bit and try to remember that, well, they kinda can’t help it.

The good news is you can help—namely by using a technique Fox refers to as “previewing,” which essentially involves talking out potential scenarios and their consequences with your teen before the sh*t hits the fan. Example: “I know you’re familiar with taking the subway by yourself, but I’m still going to remind you that it’s very different to ride the train at night and if (insert situation) were to happen, you should do X, Y and Z.” Will your teen roll their eyes the entire time you’re talking? Likely. Still, the expert says that this practice does, in fact, plant a seed that will help a teen’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex make the right call in the heat of the moment. “It’s the same reason fire drills are done at school,” she explains.

2. Teens Are Hardwired for Gratification

Another thing the adolescent in your life finds very hard to fight is the desire for instant gratification and thrills. Yep, it turns out that the reward center in the teen brain lights up like a Christmas tree and, for the time being, is pretty out of balance.

A 2014 study published in Developmental Neuroscience found that the limbic system—the brain’s reward center—has by and large matured and is fully active in teenagers, while the aforementioned prefrontal cortex’s maturation is still underway. This structural imbalance means that teens have all the wiring to have a good time, but don’t yet have the circuitry required for weighing the risks of their good time.

What’s more, Fox tells us that this problem is compounded by the fact that the teen brain also has an imbalance in the primary excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, GABA and glutamate, which function as the “on” and “off” switches for the cells in the brain. While the “on” system (glutamate) is plenty functional, the “off” system (GABA) is still developing. In other words, the teen brain releases “more neurotransmitters for novelty-seeking experiences than the ‘stop and think about it’ kind.” Which helps explain why your kid might be tempted to try something “fun” (think: alcohol, getting a tattoo, skipping class) without necessarily considering the consequences. For this reason, the expert recommends that parents rely on strict boundary-setting, in conjunction with the aforementioned “previewing” method, in order to help teens rein in reward-seeking behavior.

3. The Teen Brain Wants to Burn the Midnight Oil

Another fun fact about the teen brain is that it’s wired for a later bedtime, as compared to us snoozy adults. Indeed, studies have shown that the teen brain doesn’t start releasing melatonin until around 11 p.m. and continues pumping it out until well past sunrise, producing a shift in circadian rhythm that explains why the teen in your life has the irksome habit of staying up late and sleeping ‘til damn near noon.

Unfortunately, early school start times are at odds with the science, and can negatively affect a teen’s ability to learn and function at their best. Barring changes on that front, Fox says the only thing parents can really do is try to create the conditions for earlier sleep by putting screen-time rules in place—namely because blue light stimulation actually suppresses the release of melatonin even more than other types of light exposure, which is the last thing your teenage night owl needs.

4. Teenagers Process Negative Social Interactions Differently

According to Fox, negative social experiences like bullying, harsh criticism and peer rejection light up the pain center of the brain in adolescents to a much larger degree than in adults. A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience confirms that “adolescents are more emotionally sensitive to negative stimuli compared to adults, regardless of the emotional intensity of the stimuli,” which also explains why teens tend to have a lower threshold for emotional reactivity. So if it seems like your teenager storms off over the slightest thing, it’s actually because their brain is currently built that way.

This knowledge is particularly important when it comes to understanding “how powerful bullying and social media idolizing can be for teens,” says Fox. While it’s impossible to protect teenagers from every negative social experience, the expert suggests that this heightened emotional vulnerability can be offset by the influence of positive (non-parental) adult mentors. “There’s a ton of data that shows positive mentors can be just as powerful because teens actually do want to please and be perceived as valuable. Mentors provide this by giving the teen someone to please and admire,” says Fox, adding that, “teens don't just disrespect anyone that is an adult.” The takeaway? Try to discourage your teen from going down the social media rabbit hole and steer them towards meaningful, mentor relationships instead.

5. Teens Aren’t At the Mercy of Their Hormones

Fox tells us that the hormonal teenager trope is one of the biggest myths there is, and everything above is proof that there are more accurate neurological explanations for what adults perceive as hypersensitivity and poor judgment in teens. “The influence of hormones on teens is hugely exaggerated and often used as an excuse for disrespectful behavior when what teens really need is a parent who can help them understand the importance of accountability. Adults have hormonal mood swings, too, but we still go to work and treat our colleagues with respect,” notes Fox.

In other words, hormones aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, and actually don’t have that much to do with teen behavior at all—but the developing teen brain does need all the support it can get in the form of boundaries and conscientious parenting, which, of course, begins with basic understanding.

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