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By Sue Wright BSc(Physiol), Exec MBA

Energetic, innovative, creative, curious and sometimes confused. Adolescents are going through changes that can be challenging for them and for their parents. Understanding the recent insights into adolescent development may help parents and other adults support adolescents to thrive.

Scientists have now started to unravel the mystery of adolescence and a lot comes back to the brain. Just over a decade ago researchers identified that there are major changes happening in the brain during adolescence. While the years from conception through the first few years of life build the foundation for the rest of our lives – how we think, feel, and behave – the brain changes a lot during adolescence, building on these foundations.

This is a period full of amazing development and drive. As Daniel Siegel describes in “Brainstorm”, it is a period where we can build the essence of living well for the rest of our adult life. He describes four key changes: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity and creative explorations. These changes affect how teens seek rewards in trying new things, connect with their peers in different ways, feel emotions more intensely and push back on the existing way of doing things to create new ways of being in the world.

Adolescence starts with puberty, when our bodies start changing, usually around 8 to 10 years old and ends in the mid 20’s when the brain has formed its adult structure and function. During this time the young person transitions from full dependence on their family for food, clothing, support and care to interdependence, where they have their own relationships and the skills to support and care for themselves and their future offspring.

To leave the familiarity of the home setting adolescents need the drive to seek out new experiences, a willingness to take risks and take actions that may seem to be impulsive behaviour, all strongly influenced by their social group.

At the front of our brain, just above our eyes and behind the forehead is a region that plays a critical role in memory, impulse control, decision-making and planning for the future and stops us taking actions that may cause harm. Through adolescence, this pre-frontal cortex area is being structured and wired up in response to our experiences and learning.

In the meantime, the ‘emotional’ regions of the brain have a greater influence on our decisions and actions. Some areas in the brain make us feel really good; when stimulated they can make us feel great about ourselves, exhilarated and this in turn can give us a desire to do whatever caused that feeling again and again and again. These ‘reward’ centres are more sensitive during adolescence and are not yet strongly wired up to the “don’t do it” prefrontal region. This can lead to actions that may seem impulsive or careless at times. When asked “why did you do it?” the reply may be “I don’t know” and the reality is they genuinely often do not know why they did it, it just seemed like a good idea at the time!

Interestingly studies have found that adolescents are able to describe risks as accurately as adults; it’s just that they are more likely to take those risks than adults. Why? Two reasons. First, often the gain from feeling the buzz and just doing ‘it’ outweighs the perceived risk of harm. The second reason is that the social peer group influences adolescents to take more risks as the feeling of reward and exhilaration is so much greater when they are with their peers.

Adolescence is a unique and special time of both risk and opportunity. The experiences we have shape our learning, our brain and our future. It is also a time when parents, with their more mature prefrontal cortex and greater life experience, are needed to guide and support their adolescents as they increasingly make their own decisions.

First published Brainwave Trust Aotearoa newsletter, Issue 20, Winter 2014. Updated February 2018.