Teen Brain Growth Surges Can Help Explain Adolescent Behavior

Wondering why your teen is so emotional and risk-taking?
Your teenager is neither crazy nor stupid. No matter how emotional they are; No matter how much they seem to be making poor choices, there is a very good reason why teens are the way they are. It is not their fault or yours. It’s biology. Adolescence brings about a surge in brain growth. But the dilemma is that different brain areas grow at different rates. The novelty and fear region (Amygdala) and the reward region (Nucleus Accumbens), in the adolescent brain, mature earlier than the region involved in calming and self-control (Prefrontal cortex). Eventually, the Prefrontal Cortex does come on board, but it is a slowly occurring process that continues on into your child’s 20’s.

Teens can get really anxious as a result of their overactive amygdala
It is perfectly normal when in a new situation to have a bit of a fear response. That’s because the Amygdala gives a spurt of adrenaline when we are in unfamiliar circumstances; such as meeting a group of new people or going to a new place. The adrenaline puts us on the alert for possible danger. It also enhances memory, which is how we can learn about new situations, most especially what might be dangerous about them. But in most cases, once the new situation becomes familiar and nothing bad has happened, the fear diminishes. That’s due to the Prefrontal Cortex calming the fear response, by an actual unlearning mechanism. What makes a teen more vulnerable to possibly developing anxiety issues is that they have the combination of an overactive Amygdala and underactive Prefrontal Cortex. As a result, they have a heightened fear response to novelty, but an impaired unlearning of the fear response. So even if a danger has passed, or no danger has even occurred, a teen may be left with residual feelings of anxiety. Fortunately, not every teen develops an anxiety disorder. However, up to 20 percent may. If you are interested in learning more about teens and anxiety here is an interesting article by the psychiatrist Richard Friedman, Why Teens Act Crazy.

What can you do about your teen’s emotionality and risk-taking?
There is a lot you can do about it, but it may not be what you think. As much as you wish your wisdom could ‘teach kids’ not to be this way- it just doesn’t work that way. For example, you can’t tell your anxious child that the situation is perfectly safe and to not to feel anxious. What you can do is to be more understanding, empathic and accepting of how your teenager is acting. While this may not stop their distressing emotions or prevent their behavior, it at least makes them feel you are not judging them. Trust me, your teen’s emotionality and concern about fitting in with their peers are harder on them than it is on you. And their risk-taking is nature’s way of ensuring that every new generation has its innovators and pioneers so that culture and society progresses. And without some risk-taking, your child will not have the guts to become an independently functioning adult. Try as much as possible to avoid judgment or shaming your child, because it can cause a whole host of other issues.

Share your wisdom, but do it carefully
Your child does benefit from your wise input and advice. Sharing wisdom is valuable, but only if you do it carefully. Don’t blame, shame or ‘name call’ your child, no matter how upsetting their behavior is. That only makes kids defensive and more likely to shut their ears to what you are saying. Also, because of their enhanced emotionality, they are more sensitive to negative input. And when you do share, make sure to ‘own it’ as your perspective or your opinion. Don’t label it as the truth or the right way. Remember your teen is trying to separate and learn to think for themselves. If you push too much on how you think they should behave, they are a lot more likely to push back and not listen to you.

The good news is that your teen values your input.
They do internalize your good ideas and hold onto them. It keeps them feeling safer and more connected to you. They also may call upon it in a pinch, when peers are pressuring them to do something they don’t want to do. But your teen has their pride. No matter how great your advice or opinions are, most typically teens will neither thank you nor give you credit for being right. You just have to trust and not feel hurt or rejected by their failure to appreciate how helpful you are.

Listen to how your teen thinks about a situation
One way to improve your child’s ability to regulate their emotions and to develop good judgment is to ask them what they think about a situation and be a good listener when they tell you about it. It turns out that the more you listen respectfully, the more confident they feel about handling difficult situations and also the more they are likely to listen to you- even if they don’t tell you about that.

Written by Regina Pally, Founder and Co-Director of CRC

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