Ask any parent about life with a teenager and you may well hear them recant tales about technology obsessed, monosyllabic teens who go off the rails.
Whilst this is an unfair stereotype of teenagers and often, fortunately, far from the truth, during adolescence the teenage brain undergoes some fundamental changes that can impact on their behaviour. Of course, your child’s brain development is not responsible for all their behavioural decisions - genes, childhood experiences and environmental factors also play a role.
Here we look at what the main changes to the brain are during adolescence and how it can affect a teenager’s behaviour.
Part of the brain’s developmental journey during puberty is to increase its quantity of grey matter to also increase the number of connections within the brain. Grey matter is the term used to describe the outer layer of the brain – also called the cortex.
The cortex is the part of the brain that processes thoughts and memories. Some parts of the brain control simple things such as movement and some control more complex areas like impulses and the ability to plan ahead. During early adolescence there is a peak in the amount of grey matter within the brain.
It may not surprise you that the parts of the brain that are needed for control of impulses and planning ahead develop last, in fact it is not until your teenager reaches 21-25 years old that their brain is fully developed.
This part of the brain is responsible for many things, including social awareness and understanding other people. One downside to this is that adolescents can suffer with more social anxiety and this may explain why they are more obsessed with their image, friends and the opinions of others. It may also explain why many teenagers are so obsessed with social media – if you like their brains are naturally more active in this field.
The still developing teenage brain goes some way to explaining why teenagers often partake in risky or even foolish behaviours. For instance, teens are 6 times more likely to have a serious injury than a 10-14 year old.
Research has shown that whereas adults use a part of their brain called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex to successfully deal with social and peer exclusion, teenagers aren’t able to as readily access this part of the brain. This means they are far more sensitive to peer exclusion, so will go to greater extents to avoid it and this may mean ‘showing off’ by driving too fast or taking risks.
The limbic system is part of the brain that during puberty becomes increasingly controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is linked to high emotions and if this part of the brain is operating, decisions can often be rash and not very well thought through. This may further explain why teenagers engage in risky behaviours. Over time the limbic system becomes less directive and the pre frontal cortex takes over.
Maintain boundaries – whilst the boundaries will change over time, establishing ground rules is still an important part of successfully parenting your teenager. Not only do boundaries serve to keep your child safe, but they also serve a purpose psychologically in helping them feel safe. Boundaries teach your child about responsibilities and whilst they might fight against them, are important in helping them grow into adults.
Communicate – often teenagers and parents feel that they grow apart during the teenage years, and part of this is a very natural and healthy part of parenting. Erikson rather dramatically said that a key role of teenage life is to ‘kill off your parents’ as a healthy way of gaining independence. What he meant by this is that a key task of being a teenager is to transition into a fully independent adult. Whilst this means you may know less about your teenager’s daily life than say, your 7-year-old, your teenager will still want to know you are interested in them. Communication is key to this so make time to talk to them and show an interest in their hobbies.
Seek help when needed – much research has been done which shows that teenagers are at a higher risk of developing a mental health condition. Some of this could be due to their developing brain, some of it due to the risks they take or substance abuse.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, providing psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy to children, adults, families and businesses nationwide. If you would like to know more about how Clinical Partners can help you, please call 0203 761 7026 to speak to someone today or request a callback. www.clinical-partners.co.uk
 Chein, J., Albert, K. et al Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuity in Dev. Sci. March 2011 14(2): F1-F10