The teenage brain is still developing in crucial ways

Recent research shows that the teenage brain is still developing and teenage behavior in areas of mood fluctuations, impulsive behavior and rational thinking can be impacted as these changes occur in the brain

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), along with other sources such as NPR and PBS, have all shared articles on recent research of the teenage brain. These sources provide great insight for those interested in learning more. This article will summarize some of the key findings that impact youth professionals, teachers and parents as they work with this population.

Unlike previous misconceptions, the new research has found that the brain is not fully developed until the early 20’s. The frontal cortex – the “thinking part” of the brain – is still being developed during the teenage years and goes through a considerable period of organizing and pruning of synapses, the connections between brain cells. The frontal cortex, which deals the most with functions such as impulse control or planning ahead, can be the last portion of the brain to mature. All of the synapse pruning and frontal cortex development can help adults understand the strong interest in exploring new things, the impulsive behavior, testing of boundaries, struggle with organizational skills or remembering certain tasks that can be prevalent in teenagers. Planning for the future, including planning for college or the act of getting a job, can be daunting for the developing teenage brain. It is important that adults in their lives help them work through these tasks.

Recent research indicates that the amygdala – the area of the brain connected with emotional response – is also more heavily used by teenagers. In a recent study, teens and adults were asked to identify the emotion behind various facial expressions from pictures of adult faces. Teens misread the feeling in the facial expression and responded from their amygdala, not their frontal cortex; adults responded from the frontal cortex in the same study.

The frontal cortex that helps adults use reasoning and planning when handling a conflict or reading a situation is not fully regulating the emotional response section of the teenage brain as it does in the adult brain. In other words, teenagers tend to respond with their instinctual or “gut” reactions and tend to respond more emotionally than rationally in their behavioral responses. This helps to understand the changes and fluctuations in mood that impact and affect teenagers. Adults may need to listen more to the emotion-charged conflicts as shared by teenagers and help them rationalize different options, meanings and reasons behind a situation.

While the NIMH lists further areas of research that need to be explored and various researchers caution against jumping into using this research in direct policy creation, the research can help adults who work with the teenage population by helping them understand the biology of the brain as it matures and ages through the teenage years. While all development is particular to the individual and genes, childhood experiences, and the environment all impact teenage brain development, this research can help adults understand some of the more baffling challenges in working with youth.

Other articles on the Michigan State University Extension website provide strategies for adults working with teenagers such as teens and smartphones and parenting styles that are successful in working with teens.

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