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The Science Behind Typical Teenage Behavior

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Nov 9, 2015

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Ah, the teenage years: when the lovable little person you knew inside and out disappears into a surly scatterbrain. Teens can be unfathomable to parents. If they look like adults, the thinking often goes, they should be able to behave and think like adults. But recent research shows that the teenage brain is actually a work in progress.

One of the most fascinating changes to take place in the brain during the teen years is a shift in balance between gray matter, that is, the thinking part of the brain, and white matter, or myelin, which connects the different parts of the gray matter and allows the brain to function as a whole. It’s the difference between reacting without thinking, and taking time to consider. Sound familiar?

Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the US National Institute of Mental Health, has conducted pioneering research on the changes in the adolescent brain. Gray matter, he says, grows throughout childhood and peaks roughly the same time as puberty. After that peak, gray matter thins, as unwanted and unused cells are eliminated. Giedd calls it the “use it or lose it” principle; the cells that are being used thrive, while those that are not used are pruned. It is a kind of sculpting in which the brain organizes itself into a smaller but more efficient organ.

At the same time, myelin grows, wiring the different parts of the brain together. But the teen brain is only 80% wired, and studies have shown that this connectivity takes place from the back of the brain, which controls things like balance and coordination, to the front, where problem solving and higher reasoning occurs. This simultaneous process of pruning and connecting in the brain is the reason why the teenage years can be challenging, particularly regarding six typical behaviors.

The hallmarks of typical teenage behavior

Disorganisation

Prospective memory, or, the ability to remember to do something at a later time, develops first between the ages of 6 and 10 and again in the mid-20s. In other words, your teen may be twice the size, but his or her planning skills are roughly the same as a 10-year-old’s. On top of this, the teen brain is wired to seek instant gratification, as neurons that produce dopamine – a substance associated with pleasure and motivation – are more active and responsive in adolescent brains. As a result, task completion and self-discipline take a back seat.

Tip: Write down instructions of one or two points at most. Help your teen stay organized by asking him or her to write down daily schedules. Also, set time limits on distractions like social media use.

High emotions

With the onset of puberty, the brain unleashes increased testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are particularly active in the limbic system, a set of brain structures involved in emotion. Yet the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional control, is easily excited in teens, writes Dr. Frances Jensen, neuroscientist and author of the book, Teenage Brain. Consequently, emotions run amok, prompting outbursts or high-strung reactions to things parents find commonplace.

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Tip: When your teen has a meltdown, stay calm and keep communication channels open. If face-to-face conversation isn’t helping to resolve the issue, Dr. Jensen suggests communicating through texts or social media, as today’s teens are often more comfortable with digital interactions. Or consider taking your teen for a drive and talking it out in the car, where sitting side-by-side can be a less confrontational form of in-person communication.

Risk-taking / Impulsiveness

The frontal lobe of the brain, which is involved in higher executive functions like judgment, insight and impulse control, is the last to develop, around the early- to mid-20s. This means your teen isn’t purposefully trying to give you a heart attack. Simply, the teen brain isn’t always able to foresee consequences or analyse risky behavior.

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Abigail Baird, a cognitive scientist from Dartmouth College, It’s not her fault in which teenagers and adults were shown two scenarios, such as eating a salad or swimming with sharks, on a screen, then asked to judge which was safe or dangerous. Teenagers took longer to decide, and brain scans taken during the test showed higher activity in their prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobe involved in decision making, suggesting teens were making greater effort than adults to judge the results of each situation.

Tip: Talk to your teen repeatedly about different types of risky teenage behavior and help him or her visualize the cost versus benefit through stories. Draw on characters in books, news stories, and personal experiences to provide a variety of examples your teen can relate to and consider.

Rebellion

According to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Speigel, author of the book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, evolution has primed mammals to leave home and establish themselves away from parents. Siegel believes the changes in adolescent brains prompt teens to challenge adults and push away.

Tip: Even though your teen may seem to be pushing away, he or she actually yearns for more time and communication with you. Ellen Galinsky, social scientist and author of Ask The Children, says teens want to reconnect with parents in a more adult way. She advises parents engage with teens in new, peer-oriented ways through small, everyday rituals. This may mean doing something your teen enjoys where you interact on a more equal footing, such as playing a game together.

Sleepiness / Laziness

Is your teen groggy in the mornings? Do you find it hard to wake her up?  It’s not her fault – and she’s not being lazy. Melatonin, the sleep inducing hormone, is released two hours later at night in a teen’s brain than in an adult’s brain, and also stays in the system longer. So, a teen’s natural rhythm is to sleep and wake late.

According to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, teenagers on average need nine hours of sleep. Unfortunately, most of them get less due to early school starting times. This sleep deficit can affect mood, learning and behavior. Mary Carskadon, director of the E.P. Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Laboratory at Brown University, has spent years mapping the brains of sleepy teens. Carskadon It’s not her fault, but this idea has yet to catch on widely in the US or elsewhere.

Tip: If your teen has to wake up early, make sure he gets a full nine hours of sleep and have him wind down at the same time every night.

Learning

Adolescents are actually wired to learn better and faster. A process known as long-term potentiation (LTP), in which synapses and neuronal connections are strengthened by patterns of activity, is stronger in teen brains. Studies comparing slices of the hippocampus – the part of the brain associated with long-term memory – in adolescents versus adults, found the strength of LTP was higher and lasted longer in teens. This means teens can pick up a new language, learn to play a new sport or a musical instrument faster and better than adults.

Tip: This is a good time to help your teen identify strengths and talents and nurture them.

The teenage years are a crucial part of development. It may not be all smooth, but experts agree the most beneficial thing for teens is to have a good relationship with their parents. For this, parents need to be tolerant of their teenager’s behavior, to an extent, emphasise teens’ positive attributes, and, most importantly find new ways to communicate and connect.

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Written By Deepa Padmanaban

Deepa is a freelance journalist who writes about health, wellness, science, environment, people and culture. She has published in The Hindu, Mint, The Caravan, Open magazine, India Spend, and international publications such as Quartz, Christian Science Monitor and others. In her previous avatar, she was a biologist at The Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) and Harvard University. You can follow her work at deepapadmanaban.com or on Twitter @deepa_padma

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