When I was a teenager, I remember my mum getting mad at me because I got home at midnight when she had asked me to be home at 11.30.I thought she was being unreasonable but I didn’t really consider how worried she must have been. Teenagers are not necessarily the most considerate people but this may be outside their control.
Previously, people thought that the teenage brain was much like an adult brain and that the really important brain development occurred in the early years. However, neuroscientists have found that teenage brains are still developing. The brain rewires during the teen years and this can continue until the early twenties. New connections between nerve cells in the brain are formed and some connections are lost. The part of the brain that is most affected is the pre-frontal cortex, which is important for controlling emotions, empathy and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex helps us to plan ahead, control our impulses and understand the consequences of our actions so it is not surprising that teenagers can be reactive and have problems with self-control. Teenagers may not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions and they may not weigh up information in the same way adults do. So although adults might weigh up the consequences of getting in a car with a friend who has drunk too much but teenagers may not.
Teenagers can also find it difficult to read facial expressions and recognise other people’s feelings while the brain is rewiring. One study found that only 50% of teenagers could recognise fear as a facial expression compared to 100% of adults. So teenagers may need help recognising other people’s feelings.
Parents may feel frustrated when they tell their teenager to do their homework only to find them texting a friend two minutes later. Unfortunately, the reward centre of teenagers’ brain just seeks pleasure and they don’t think about the consequences. If parents understand that their teenagers are not deliberately trying to annoy them, then they are less likely to become frustrated.
Teenagers’ brains are also very reactive. One study compared children’s, teenagers’ and adults’ responses to rewards such as money. Teenagers showed the greatest brain activation to rewards. They can also be very reactive and can have a hard time controlling their emotions. Perhaps this suggests that we should really be bribing teenagers to do their homework rather than nagging them!
Teenagers find it more difficult to read facial expressions and recognise other people’s feelings while the brain is rewiring. One study found that only 50% of teenagers could recognise fear as a facial expression compared to 100% of adults. Teenagers may need help recognising other people’s feelings.
So how can we help teenagers? I have three suggestions: We can improve their understanding of their own and other people’s emotions; We can help them to control their thoughts, which in turn impacts their emotions and we can teach them skills of reflection and taking different perspectives.
Read more about teenagers in ‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ for sale as an e-book on Amazon, Smashwords.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks, Sony ebookstore and Apple ibookstore.