It may be some comfort to know that your teen’s erratic behavior may in large part stem from an underdeveloped brain.
“Teenagers are amazing,” said Dr. Sumru Bilge-Johnson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “They are at the peak of physical health and their mental capacity is great. But they also can be very frustrating for parents. How can they be so irrational, impulsive, irresponsible and risk-taking while they can also be so smart, responsible and mature at times?”
The answer lies in the brain’s frontal cortex, which controls reasoning and decision-making. The frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until you hit your 20’s.
At the same time, teens have a very active amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions.
So their emotions are in the fast lane but they lack a good set of brakes to control them.
“The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal cortex,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said. “That’s the most sophisticated part of the brain that does the most complex thinking. It regulates and controls emotions. In short, this region puts the brakes on as it can foresee the consequences and help make better choices.”
Teens generally are less likely to consider consequences of their behavior. Factors other than brain anatomy can play a role as well.
Genetics, ADHD and negative childhood experiences such as abuse and trauma also affect the development of these regions and teen behavior, Dr. Bilge-Johnson said.
While you can’t prod your teen’s frontal cortex to maturity, you can make a difference on how they manage behavior and emotions, she said:
- Research has shown that teaching children how to regulate emotions helps them become successful adults.
- Parental support and guidance through the teen years has a positive effect on the hardwiring of the brain. These neural connections help teens mature into emotionally healthy adults.
- Along those lines, if the teens can have a mentor to talk to – a parent, older relative, teacher, coach or counselor. They can discuss and examine causes of their behavior and how they can do things differently.
“That kind of process really helps them learn from their experiences,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said. “It helps them expand their thinking and understanding. What led them to do that behavior? We are teaching them how to get better in their thinking, reasoning and emotional control.”
She recommends for parents to read SOS Help For Emotions: Managing Anxiety, Anger and Depression by Lynn Clark.