Understanding the Neurobiology and Emotions of Your Teens’ Mind

Our teenage years have often been known as some of the most transformative years of our lives. With adolescence comes a breadth of new experiences: physical changes, expanded emotional reactions, development of self-esteem and identity formation, school and family stressors, added social awareness and self-consciousness, new interests and hobbies, and more. But what happens in a teen’s external world is only a tiny reflection of their inner world.

As parents, it can be easy to downplay teens’ behaviors and emotions as reactive, impulsive, or even “uncalled for” at times. However, when we understand how the brain develops and adapts to the many changes of adolescence, we see an opportunity to maximize their learning, growth, self-awareness, flexibility, and autonomy as teens emerge into early adulthood.

Neuroscience of the Teen Brain

In recent years, there has been a strong scientific interest in understanding the role of different brain regions’ development in determining teens’ behaviors. With brain imaging research, scientists have identified the role in the development of teens’ “reward” systems (such as the limbic system and amygdala), which develop rapidly in these years, and “reason” systems (primarily the prefrontal cortex), which grows at a slow rate in adolescence. As the emotion-driven reward system drives immediate social & behavioral development, our logic-driven cortex slowly begins to prime us for early adulthood when we start to plan for the future, regulate our emotions, and develop decision-making skills. However, both parts of our brain develop evenly when we meet our mid-twenties.

  • Cognitive development: While the emotional reward system of the brain is most activated in teens, our cognitive skills continue to develop, especially those that allow us to think more abstractly and holistically about a problem as we face opportunities for independent decision-making.
  • Emotional development: As cognitive development continues, teenagers also begin to develop an understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in shaping their experiences of the world. Emotions are often stronger for teenagers as their emotional systems progress significantly to incentivize growth from new experiences. It goes without noting that hormones also play a crucial role in affecting moods & responses, including those hormones related to puberty and stress response systems, compared to adults whose developed “reason” systems work to moderate emotions more effectively. For teens specifically, receptors for oxytocin and dopamine are also especially sensitive to positive rewards in social contexts.
  • Social development: Psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of development posits that the teenage years are critical in how we develop our sense of self in relation to society. To create a personal identity, teenagers must explore various parts of themselves through exercising independence, self-awareness, and social exposure. Many parts of the brain that process social cues and self-consciousness are activated as they mature with exposure – including that reward-seeking system that experiences sensitivity to acceptance and rejection. For this reason, teenagers are especially prone to peer pressures based on our internal systems that incentivize social rewards.
  • Behavioral development: Given that the teenage brain is wired to seek rewards, they are equally driven to learn more about themselves, their environments, and their strengths through experience-seeking. The chemical benefits of acceptance or immediate reward aid in decision-making for this group more often than not, and these decisions do not necessarily equate to “risk,” as many people may think. The development of decision-making systems – both emotion- and logic-driven – is a fundamental part of learning as teens navigate the world.

No matter the age of a person, it is important to note that our emotional response system (or “lizard brain”) often presents a challenge for our “logical brain” in determining behavior choices. For teens specifically, while still developing, complex thinking develops at a slower pace than emotional thinking. Given that teenagers are not only undergoing incredible internal changes but also significant external stressors – including body changes, academic challenges, social media pressures, sleep disturbances, and relationship dynamics – it should come as no surprise that this group is particularly impressionable mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally. As adults, using our own experiences and understanding of the world to our teens’ advantage offers an opportunity to help them learn about themselves in a safe environment.

What it Means for You as a Caregiver

Rather than approaching the teenage brain with judgment, fear, or reactivity, adults are in a position of privilege to recognize teens’ incredible flexibility and resilience during an incredibly volatile phase. Parents, teachers, mentors, and community members have an opportunity to affect this impressionable population for the better by using some of the following skills as opportunities for growth:

  • Foster independence to develop healthy decision-making. Without exposure to opportunities to practice autonomy, teens will rarely have the chance to learn how to make their own decisions. Establishing mutual trust and positive reinforcement is equally important to feeling confident in adolescents’ behaviors.
  • Invest time in opportunities for positive development. Research suggests that teenagers with structure and supervision – with safe opportunities for individual autonomy and guidance from trusted adults – often practice safer decision-making when posed with a challenge alone.
  • Encourage original ideas and creative thinking. Use your teens’ heightened reward system to your advantage! Celebrate carefully considered decisions, unique problem-solving efforts, and independent thought to incentivize their learning.
  • Create appropriate boundaries for growth. While we want to encourage teens to feel comfortable learning independently, we also want to ensure they are safe and deliberate in their judgment. Provide stability and comfort when they are feeling challenged socially and emotionally and offer a sense of safety in having taken a risk.
  • Refrain from punishment and opt for positive reinforcement. Given teens’ emotional susceptibility, punishments or “lectures” often trigger negative emotional responses that interfere with their ability to access more developed regions (e.g., the “learning” or “thinking” parts) of their brains. Instead, using their reward-seeking biology to emphasize positive choices can ultimately incentivize favorable behaviors in the long term.
  • Give them language for what they are experiencing. Whether it is our thoughts, emotions, or even our physical sensations and behaviors as teenagers, educating and normalizing the human experience will aid in your teen’s personal understanding of their complexities and their sense of safety with you as an adult figure.
  • Consider professional support for your teen, your family, or yourself. Navigating the teenage years is a challenging time. If you or your teen need additional support from a mental health professional, individual and/or family therapy can be a great resource for developing emotional awareness, interpersonal skills, behavioral regulation, and a larger understanding of ourselves as we navigate periods of change.

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