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Understanding the emotional and behavioural difficulties of teenagers

Thursday, 09 May 2013. Posted in Education and Mental Health

Every parent will testify that it can be very hard to keep up with a teenager’s moods. One moment happy and seemingly content the next ranting, rude and raging! The roller coaster everyone told you to expect has started – and you are not sure you have the safety harness to cope with it. This short piece outlines some of the changes in the teenage brain that may be causing some of the emotional and behavioural problems.

Behavioural problems in teenagers

Recent studies into the brain development of adolescents may explain some of the emotional and behavioural issues your teenager is facing.

1. Increased Grey Matter

Through puberty the grey matter in the brain increases in size and becomes more interconnected – it has more processing power.  This provides a teenager with the ability to start having the decision making skills of an adult.

But in the heat of the moment their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions because they are still relying on the limbic system (the emotional core of the brain) rather than the more rational Pre-frontal cortex that an adult would use.  So even though they rationally know they shouldn’t be doing something they still go and do it (rather irritatingly)!

2. Emotions become super intense

The Limbic system which is critical for the formation of memories and emotions – is undertaking major changes.  The hormonal changes create newly intense experiences of rage, fear, excitement, sexual feelings and aggression (including toward oneself).

As Sheryl Feinstein, author of “Inside the Teenage Brain” says “you can be as careful as possible and you still will have tears or anger at times because they will have misunderstood what you have said.”

Over the course of adolescence, however, the limbic system comes under great control of the Pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with planning, impulse control and higher order thoughts. As other parts of the brain help to process emotion it should start to calm down and equilibrium will hopefully be restored!

3. The increased influence of peers

The Pre-frontal Cortex is an area of the brain that changes dramatically during adolescence.  A key area that it controls is social interaction, self-awareness and understanding other people.  This new thinking however can cause social anxiety to increase because a teenager is now able to consider how other people view them.

So this is why they are more concerned about how they look, acting cool, making friends and the opinions of their friends.

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4. Fearless of risk

There are two issues related to teenager’s apparent fearlessness.  The first element is that the brain has yet to develop impulse control and it can take a while to take effect.  The second element is that teenagers require higher levels of risk to feel the same amount of ‘rush’ adults do.

Hence, taken together these changes can make teenagers vulnerable to risky behaviours – like fights, drugs or alcohol, sexual encounters, driving too fast.

As a parent what can you do to counteract this? Well continue to be a parent, be involved and listen to them.  Teenager’s still need parents to limit their behaviour.

5. Centre of the Universe

The hormone changes at puberty have huge effects on the brain, one of which is to spur the production of more receptors for Oxytocin.

While Oxytocin is often described as the “bonding hormone” increased sensitivity to its effects in the limbic system has also been linked to feeling self-consciousness, making an adolescent truly feel like everyone is watching him or her and making them very self-centred.

If their behaviour is becoming an issue…

These changes may explain some of the difficulties you may be having with your teenager – but if you feel that things are getting out of hand or you are concerned that your teenager is struggling with deeper problems then please do give us a call to chat through your concerns and arrange an appointment with one of our team.

You can read more about helping your child or teenager with emotional and behavioural issues here.

Call us for help today
Call us for help today