The Teenage Brain: Risky or Ready to Learn?

“What is wrong with me?”

This was not an infrequent refrain when I was a teenager. I am sure that some of my behavior (e.g. So. Much. Crying.) wasn’t easy to understand. The transition from happiness to complete despair during my adolescence sometimes clocked in at about 2 seconds, abrupt to say the least. No doubt this was disorienting to my parents on the outside, but it was confusing to me on the inside as well.

My mom’s consistent gentle response meant the world to me: “There is nothing wrong with you sweetie. These feelings are completely normal.” That's not to say that I was able to wipe my eyes and give my mom a proper and well-articulated “Thank you” at the time. Instead, I likely responded only with a louder wail followed by an indignant “You don’t understand!” Yet on some deeper level her quiet confidence was bedrock during a time of great upheaval.

Growing up is hard. I needed grown ups around me who believed I could do hard things, especially when I doubted that I could.

Every story has a lesson

This is why I am both passionate about and careful around the science of the adolescent brain. On one hand, the science helps normalize a particularly rocky time. How comforting to know that the chemical serotonin was part of the wellspring of the rivers of tears I was drowning in!

On the other hand, the same science can inadvertently marginalize youth if we aren’t careful. For example, I love the folksy and now-famous story of Phineus Gage because it led to our current understanding of just how powerful and important the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is. We included the story again in the latest edition of Why Do They Act That Way? because it provides a clear story anchor for our understanding of the PFC.

But every story has a lesson, and we should be mindful of the conclusions that we draw from it. For example, as the story goes, after Phineus Gage sustained extreme trauma to his prefontal cortex, he wandered around the country, unable to keep a job, before dying alone in California. This is not necessarily an empowering tale for a sobbing teenager.

The good news is that children do not sustain these kinds of life-threatening brain injuries as a routine part of development when they hit adolescence. Yet news headlines almost make you think they do: “Watch Out! Teens Are Risky Business” and “Why Teenagers Act Crazy!” Kids are clearly absorbing these messages. One young person asked me before a workshop, “Is it true that our brains are broken during middle school?” You get the point.

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How might we interpret the science differently?

The last region of the brain to finish developing is the part of our brain that helps us plan ahead, consider risk and reward, regulate emotions, and control impulses. This is why many teens need extra practice and support during adolescence. At the same time, the reward pathways in the adolescent brain are on overdrive. So dopamine-producing activities like hanging out with friends and taking risks feel that much better during adolescence.

This “mismatch” between the brakes and the gas helps account for some of the challenging and risky behaviors associated with this developmental stage. Yet the near wholesale focus on the challenges has obscured one of the main insights from the latest science: the adolescent brain is primed for learning.

The lesson: Invite young people in

The plasticity and change that can make adolescence challenging also create a “window of opportunity” for learning and growth. The experiences that young people have during the growth spurts of their brain have a greater impact than ever again in their lives. Research even shows that the teenage brain shows more communication between the striatum (where we seek rewards) and the hippocampus (where we store memories) than adult brains do.

This just means that we are more likely to form more strong and specific memories during adolescence as we get out and explore the world. Neuroscientist Dr. Laurence Steinberg argues that this is exactly why we should engage youth in learning and leadership experiences that have the potential to “stick” during this developmental window.

This challenges the dominant model of adolescence as a time to be endured, policed, and monitored as young people move through a minefield of risk. Too often we respond to adolescents with a fear-based approach that shuts teens out or locks them down, robbing them of the learning and growth that their brains are designed for. This is especially true for black, Indigenous and youth of color who are rarely allowed the same freedom to explore and aren’t granted the presumption of developmental innocence that their white counterparts benefit from.

The latest brain science actually demands the opposite – that we invite all adolescents in. This is the time to provide meaningful opportunities for teens to ignite the amped up reward pathways in their brains through engaged learning and leadership.

It’s also a reminder that we should be grateful that their brains are wired this way because it helps them do the riskiest thing of all – grow up.

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There is nothing wrong with you.

On the outside, many teenagers only show adults hardened armor as they take on the challenge of becoming an adult. But inside, many teenagers have the same internal script that I had: “What is wrong with me?”

They don’t need adults helping them rehearse that line.

Now for some real talk. I am a parent of two children. My almost eight-year-old has perfected his eye roll in early elementary school. On the younger end, my four-year- old would rather spend some days in his unicorn sleeping bag than leave our house. Believe me that by my fourth attempt to get my youngest to put on his pants this morning, I wondered “What is wrong with him?”

As parents, there are many times when we would like to scream this statement. But I like to think that this is what pillows and friends are for. This is also when I am most grateful for my tired but wired prefrontal cortex, enabling me to take a deep breath and remember that these behaviors are developmentally appropriate and right on time.

Brain science, at its best, should give us parents the glimmers of understanding we need get back to calm and gain the cognitive space to be bit of bedrock when the ground is shifting under everyone’s feet. To turn towards our children and be able to say, “Having feelings is completely normal.”

It turns out that their brains are exquisitely wired to receive this kind of learning.

And at the end of the day, though parenting might be hard, we are adults and we can do hard things.


DO:

  • Name strengths. This isn’t showering them with empty praise, it is about being clear and specific about the strengths that your child brings to the world (especially when things are challenging). Give them opportunities to name their own strengths.
  • Invite teens in. Be wary of “tokenism” and “decoration” and instead plug your teen into organizations and activities where young people are given agency and power. Check out this ladder of youth engagement to get a sense of what is possible: (https://www.nacac.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Ladder-of-Youth-Engagement.pdf)
  • Support positive risk taking. Getting up in front of your school to talk about bullying is a risky thing, in the best way. Create opportunities for risk taking that results in positive and productive learning.
  • Keep playing. Engaging the learning brain isn’t just about focusing on transcripts and college entrance exams. Young people still benefit from hands on experience, tinkering, experimenting, downtime, and play.
  • Pay attention to sleep. While teens are asleep, their brains are busily “house cleaning” inside the brain, getting rid of unnecessary connections and cementing important ones. Without this, the learning power of the teenage brain is diminished.
  • Get your teen moving. Exercise is like “miracle grow” for the prefrontal cortex, apply liberally.

DON'T:

  • Use brain science to marginalize teens. Excluding teens from leadership or downplaying their ability to contribute robs them of practice and learning. It also robs adults of opportunities to learn from the ideas, energy, and wisdom of youth.
  • Ignore the power of peers. Social reflection, collaboration, and teamwork are the glue of new learning during adolescence. Groups of teens are not scary, they are powerful.
  • Hide the research. Teach teenagers about their own brains. Learning that their brains are growing can boost performance: https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/
  • Ignore mental health issues. While ups and downs are a normal part of adolescence, don't ignore signs of more serious mental health issues.

Notes:

  1. Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Hare, T. A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 111-26.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Galvan, A. (2010). Adolescent development of the reward system. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 4, 6.
  4. Peters, S. & Crone, E.A. (2017). Increased striatal activity in adolescence benefits learning. Nature Communication. 8, 1983.
  5. Steinberg, L. (2015). Age of Opportunity: New Lessons from the Science of Adolescence. Houghton-Mifflin. New York: NY.
  6. Carskadon, M. (2011). Sleep in adolescents: the perfect storm. Pediatric clinics of North America, 58(3), 637-47.
  7. Verburgh L, Königs M, Scherder EJA, et al. (2014).Physical exercise and executive functions in preadolescent children, adolescents and young adults: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 48:973-979.
  8. Dahl, R., Allen, N., Wilbrecht, L., & Suleiman, A. (2018). Importance of investing in adolescence from a developmental science perspective. Nature. 554, 441.