The teenage brain: How can neuroscience help us understand teenagers?

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have shown that our brains change rapidly during our teenage years and continue to develop until our mid-twenties.

Every teenager has a unique experience, and there are a multitude of factors that influence how someone feels and behaves. There is also plenty more to understand about the adolescent brain.

But by looking at some typical neurological differences between the teen and adult brain, perhaps we can learn a bit more about how teenagers tick.

"What are you looking at?"

We’ve asked Jo Stockdale, a child development and well-being specialist from advisory centre, Well Within Reach, and Dr Juliet Starbuck, a chartered psychologist at University College London, to tell us how neuroscience can help us better understand some typical teen traits.

1. ‘I’m tired all the time’

A lot of teenagers love a line-in, but despite what some parents may think, it isn’t (always) because they are lazy, or because they are staying up too late - although a late night Netflix binge probably doesn’t help.

There are many factors that contribute to a teenager’s need for more sleep: hormones, melatonin, circadian rhythms, screen time, worrying about exams or friendships, and more.

One you might not have heard of is pruning.

This rapid neural growth means parts of the brain need to completely change and reconfigure. To do this the brain ‘prunes’ away areas to facilitate new growth - the brain is being de-cluttered of unnecessary or unused connections.

Significantly for teenagers, this process largely occurs during sleep and is one of the reasons they need more of it.

"Zzzzzz"

The NHS recommends teenagers get a minimum of eight to nine hours of good sleep on school nights.

2. ‘I can’t decide what options to take’

Teenagers are expected to make a lot of big life-decisions about their studies and careers. From peer-pressure to low self-esteem, there are loads of reasons decision-making can be difficult.

The decision-making part of the teenage brain is far from fully developed, meaning they are making big decisions while their brains are still rapidly changing.

The area of the brain most affected by pruning is the pre-frontal cortex, which is the area associated with tasks like forward planning, anticipating consequences, and decision-making.

Ms Stockdale said: “We not only expect them to make decisions about and plan for the rest of their lives when their brains are poorly equipped, but we also ask them to do this when they’re very sleep-deprived.”

"History, Geography, Drama or Art?"

Teenagers are being pulled in many directions by multiple factors. With very few experiences to draw upon, and influence from their peers, Ms Stockdale suggested that it’s important for teenagers to have the space and the time needed to make a decision on their own.

One of the big decisions teenagers have to face is choosing their study options. You can find advice and support on picking exam subjects in this guide.

3. ‘I keep getting angry at the smallest things’

There are a number of factors that cause teenagers to experience heightened emotional states, like paranoia, anxiety or anger.

They’re juggling their home and school life, navigating friendships, coping with puberty and hormonal changes - the perfect recipe for teenage angst.

But experiencing heightened emotional reactions in adolescence can also be linked to the way teenagers’ brains are wired.

"I'm not angry, I'm experiencing a heightened emotional reaction"

Ms Stockdale explained this may be a consequence of pruning too: “Because the pre-frontal cortex is very compromised, the limbic system becomes more active.”

The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with emotion.

Because the limbic system is more developed than the pre-frontal cortex during adolescence, this means when they feel things, a teenager might react to it more than a typical adult.

According to Dr Starbuck, often a teenager’s pre-frontal cortex isn't yet developed enough to help them behave ‘appropriately’, or at least in a way deemed appropriate by adults.

“It’s harder for the adolescent to think about how their emotional reaction impacts on other people,” she said.

It’s easy to get frustrated when you can’t get your point across without letting your emotions get the better of you. Check out this guide to arguing like a pro.

How might a better understanding of the teenage brain help teenagers, and those around them?

An understanding of the teenage brain could help everyone cope better with adolescence, from teenagers themselves, to parents, carers, and teachers.

“How reassuring would it be to know that all these changes taking place in your mind, as well as your body, are perfectly normal - even if they’re not very easy?” said Ms Stockdale.

They might sometimes still be sleepy, indecisive, angry, or all three, but understanding there are neurological factors affecting these traits might help everyone support teenagers in the right way as they progress on their journey to adulthood.

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