Growing Up and The Adolescent Brain


Oct 01, 2014 by Smart Blog

Until very recently, it was widely believed that the overwhelming majority of human brain development took place in the early years of life, and that what happened thereafter was largely 'tweaking'.

Now, thanks to the development of imaging technologies such as MRI scanning, it is clear that in fact the human brain continues to develop throughout the first 30 or so years of life, and that the period of adolescence coincides with a particularly intense period of brain development. Perhaps that is why parenting a teenager is seen as one of the more challenging things that life has to offer!


Nothing New

Adolescence is the period of life between the onset of puberty and the achievement of social independence - the onset of puberty tends to be a couple of years earlier in girls than in boys but in general terms, adolescence runs from around the age of 12 to the early twenties.

Although the idea of teenagers, as forming a distinct social and consumer group, became particularly strong during the 1950s, the concept of adolescence is hundreds of years old, if not older. Shakespeare referred to it in The Winter's Tale, for example.


Dramatic Change

During this time, the brain changes a great deal, but in particular, the pre-frontal cortex is transformed. The pre-frontal cortex is a part of the brain closely connected with decision making and behaviour inhibition, which may explain why teenagers tend to take more risks (because their decision-making skills are not yet mature) and behave in 'inappropriate' ways (because the same is true of their behavioural inhibition processes).

Studies have also shown that adolescents are much less proficient than adults at working out how other people might see or feel about a situation, and are particularly keen to impress members of their friendship groups (sometimes by doing very daft things!).


Good News

For parents, teachers and carers, the good news is that the environment can heavily influence the adolescent brain. This is because teenagers' brains undergo lots of 'synaptic pruning', in other words the neural connections that are frequently used become stronger, and those that are not can be lost. Therefore, parents and carers can make a genuine and lasting difference by:

  • Letting teenagers take appropriate risks - this can help them to develop their identity and move towards independence.
  • Find outlets for the creativity and self-expression that flourishes during this time.
  • Maintain a dialogue, so that teenagers can learn to assess risk, make good decisions and consider other people's points of view.
  • Provide boundaries and guidance.
  • Reinforce positive brain pathways by praising desirable behaviours and achievements.

There is no doubt that adolescence is a challenging period, for parents, carers, teachers and adolescents alike. It is also true, however, that adolescence offers superb opportunities in terms of learning and creativity, and teenagers' brain development is such that the input of thoughtful, caring adults can lead to life-changing - and hugely beneficial - developments at this time.