What's Up With That?: The Teen Brain

Teenage behavior, although typical, can still leave a parent mystified and concerned. Parents often wonder why their child starts to react in intensely emotional ways; may make poor decisions without a thought; may engage in dangerous stunts for fun; and sometimes seems to lack the gumption to accomplish daily tasks, like chores and homework.

There is an explanation for these enigmas, and it has to do with human brain development. We’ll look at the developmental reasons behind these behaviors and understand why parental support and guidance is so crucial during the adolescent years.  

The human brain goes through a pruning process as adolescence approaches; the neural connections that are not used are eliminated so that the brain will function more efficiently. Neural connections, or synapses, that are used become more permanent through an insulation process called myelination. The neural cells produce a fatty substance called myelin that coats the connection. Without the myelin sheath, signals move more slowly.

Myelination occurs from the back of the brain toward the front over several years throughout adolescence. The last part of the brain to undergo this process is the prefrontal cortex which acts as a regulator of emotion and allows for rational thought and the anticipation of the consequences of one’s actions. Since this region of the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s, teens need guidance in making healthy decisions, like whether or not to try alcohol and drugs, and in thinking rationally without lapsing into catastrophic thought patterns.

Another noteworthy reality of this developmental stage is the higher susceptibility to substance dependence and addiction. The reward center of the brain is learning to make new associations that involve pleasure seeking and memory. Teens “learn” to crave the pleasurable sensation from substance use more quickly than adults. That is why 90% of addictions start in the teen years. Although parents cannot control their teens’ actions and decisions, they do have important influence that can be a protective factor in their children’s lives.

Any endeavor in life that is difficult and important requires effort, preparation and support, and parenting is no different. Learn how you can maximize your positive influence, set healthy limits, and grow a close, supportive relationship with your kids that will serve to keep them on track for a healthy, happy, drug-free life. Attend one of the free Active Parenting workshops offered by DrugFreeAZKids.org. Contact 602-264-5700 or partner@DrugFreeAZKids.org