The Paradox of the Teenagers Brain

The teenage brain is exploding with creativity and growth. In fact, it is a powerful peak of growth that only happens once in a lifetime. However, there appears to be vulnerability in adolescence too. Even though teens are undergoing dramatic changes in their physical, emotional, and psychological growth, they are also incredibly susceptible to mental illness, drug use, and risky behavior.

Even though teens may be experiencing their physical health, mental capacities, and strength, they are also six times more likely than children ages 10 to 14 to experience death by injury. Alcohol rates are high relative to rates for those of other ages. Crime rates are highest among male teens and mortality rates for teens of both sexes are high at this stage of life. Teens are also at risk for developing depression, anxiety, and addictions.

Despite the great strengths that adolescents experience, they are also incredibly vulnerable. One of the ways that researchers in the field of psychology have investigated this paradox is by exploring the development of the brain. One of the biggest discoveries found in brain research is that the teen brain doesn’t begin to look like that of an adult until an individual’s early 20’s.

This provides an explanation of why teens tend to make decisions that appear to be illogical. For instance, the grey matter of the brain, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and is known as the thinking part of the brain, is still growing in teens. However, for adults, the brain’s grey matter development is complete. Alongside this is the still developing frontal cortex, which completes its growth during ages 23-26. The frontal cortex performs reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, necessities for being an adult. This might explain a teen’s tendency to make poor decisions and an inability to discern whether a situation is safe. Teens tend to experiment with risky behavior and don’t fully recognize the consequences of their choices.

Teens tend to be impulsive. Some might believe that the impulsivity of teens is simply characteristic of being adolescents because, in a way, they’re still lingering in childhood as they make their way towards adulthood. However, the impulsivity of adolescents is in fact mostly due to how their brains are wired.

An impulse is an urge to act. In the mental health field, it is the tendency to respond quickly, without any sort of thinking about the future or consequences. Some individuals have learned to control their impulses, to feel them, but not give into them. For instance, you might see a dress in the window, ask about its cost, and then think otherwise about buying it. This is a way of controlling your impulses. Whereas, a teen might see the dress, imagine how she might look in it, especially at the party this weekend, and buy it regardless of the cost. Another example is the person who experiences an insult from his supervisor. Although he would like to follow the impulse to curse her, he doesn’t. He wants to be able to keep his job, which pays for his mortgage and the needs of his family. An adolescent might not take the time to think about the consequences in the least. In a quick second, a teen might retort with an insulting comeback and potentially lose his job.

It’s important to note the brain science has recognized that the teen brain is neither like a child’s nor like an adult’s. Nor is the adolescent brain not up to par. In fact, it has such striking capacity for creativity and growth that it seems perfectly equipped to make the transition into adulthood – that is, if given the right opportunities to grow. In fact, research indicates that the next area of learning for adults regarding teens is how they can create an environment that facilitates exploration and experimentation versus behavior that is destructive to themselves and others.