The Truth About Teenagers
Teenagers’ stereotype is that they’re rude, lazy, and irrational.
They spend too much time on social media, on their phones and on their games consoles.
They sleep too much, and they eat too much.
They don’t talk enough. Don’t work hard enough at school. Don’t help enough around the house, and take everything for granted.
Not like when WE were teenagers right?
Except I’m pretty sure our parents might have said similar things about us. I know they definitely said that about my brother 😉
So I’ve put together this series of tips to explain why teenagers behave as they do and to offer some strategies for navigating the teenage years.
Brain Fact 1
The truth is that teenagers are different.
They are different to the children they used to be and different to the adults they will become.
They are like the ‘tadpoles with legs’ stage in a frog’s life, partway between the immature and adult forms. And just like those tadpoles they are undergoing the most incredible metamorphosis.
They may not be growing extra limbs, but they are growing a whole new brain.
Not an extra one, obviously, but an extensive remodelling of the one they currently have, while still having to use the current part-finished model.
Anyone who has ever had their kitchen redone, while still having to use it to cook dinner in, daily, throughout the project, might sympathise with what a problem that might be!
Their brain hasn’t grown much more in size since they were about 6, but what’s happening is a fine tuning of the connections between brain cells in there. Unused connections are being pruned away and the frequently used connections are being refined and insulated, improving efficiency and speed of communication between them.
Brain Fact 2
They are ‘teenagers’ until they are about 25!
The teenage brain is remodelled from the back of the brain toward the front, physically speaking, starting with remodelling the language, motor and sensory parts in our early teens and finishing in our mid 20’s with the prefrontal cortex above our eyebrows – the area that houses our executive control. Our boss part.
This process is controlled by hormones and tends to start and finish earlier in girls than boys, and the end result when it’s finished depends on the activities, experiences, and emotions that shape this time span.
The huge number of potential connections that could be made mean that the teenage brain is exquisitely designed for learning, for developing opinions and beliefs, and setting patterns of behaviour that will last into adulthood.
This ability, that neuroscientists call neuroplasticity, is at its highest in teenagers. It enables a motivated teen to make the most of education, but it also means that they are more impressionable, and open to influence, for good or bad.
Brain Fact 3
Teenage brains are primed for lots of stimulation
The neuroplasticity as their brains’ connections are refined allows teenagers to multitask better than adults or children, and explains their constant need for high levels of stimulation – it’s why they can be scrolling on their phone AND watching TV at the same time. It’s why the constantly refreshed and updated feeds of social media are so appealing to them.
The prefrontal cortex that controls impulse and coordinates decision making in adults is still ‘under construction’ in teens. This means they find it much harder to put what happens around them (as well as the things they see on social media, television and video games) into perspective.
We know that our adult brains can’t distinguish between what’s really happening and what is our imagination rerunning or predicting things. That’s even more true with teenage brains as they don’t have the same level of life experience to filter events through and compare.
Brain Fact 4
Teenagers respond differently to alcohol and drugs.
Teenagers lack much of a ‘brake’ on their impulses as that part of their brain (the pre-frontal cortex) is still being fine tuned until the mid 20’s.
It’s why the thrill seeking, risk taking behaviour is at its most intense in these teenage years.
This leads many teens to try alcohol or drugs, but their brains are so much more sensitive to the effects of this than the more established adult brain.
An evening spent binge drinking might result in a hangover and regret for an adult, but to a teenaged brain, it results in actual brain damage, permanently affecting the brain’s ability to regulate the connections it still needs to fine tune.
Unfortunately, the beautifully designed ability of the teenage brain to learn also applies to addictions of all sorts – that’s a learning process too, teaching the brain to expect a ‘high’ from certain types of behaviour.
Brain Fact 5
Teenagers really do ‘live in the moment’.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning and decision making and generally putting the brakes on. It is pretty much offline in our adult-sized youngsters, so while we may expect adult levels of behaviour from them, their brains lack the capacity to be that way.
Without a prefrontal ‘brake’, the more primitive limbic brain is left in charge. This part of us remains unchanged since well before caveman times – it’s all about ‘right here – right now’, and is focused on what matters now, for survival.
It’s why the thrill seeking, risk taking behaviour is at its most intense in these teenage years. For them, it’s all about immediate reward, in the form of feel-good neurotransmitters, like dopamine.
Being tidy, saving money, completing homework and tidying their bedrooms carry little to no immediate reward for our thrill seeking teenage brains so they get put off in favour of the immediate dopamine buzz from their Xbox, social media, or hanging out with friends.
Brain Fact 6
Teenagers can’t help being inconsistent.
Without adult-strength impulse control from their brain, and a workable, experienced ‘scale’ to measure emotions against, teens feel emotions more intensely – for positive or negative.
It’s also why their behaviour seems so erratic – some days their nearly-grown up prefrontal cortex is back online and they seem gratifyingly mature – you give yourself a pat on the back for producing such a balanced, intelligent human being and rejoice for the future.
And then…..other days you’re picking them up from the police station after a midnight phone call.
It’s important to understand this is not entirely their fault – they are just unable to control their behaviour as tightly as you are.
Teenagers do run their own ‘risk assessment’ before they do things, they do think; just not with the same parts of their brain as an adult would!
Check out our Top Tips for Teens Blog.
About the Author: Claire Noyelle practices online and from her tranquil garden therapy room at her home in Bearsted, Maidstone East, in the heart of the garden county of Kent. Claire is a member of the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapists, National Council for Hypnotherapy and the Complimentary and Natural Healthcare Council and a member of both the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
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