What's Wrong with Teenagers?

Teenagers are strange creatures. Most of us don't need brain scan technology to tell us that. Every generation has their nuances, but common elements include scattered thinking, impulsivity and a confrontational style of communication.


When I was in school, I associated science with dissecting frogs and figuring out which pea pods would grow green and which ones red. I thought once I graduated I would never think about science and I certainly wouldn't get excited about it. What has gotten me really excited is the new science revolving around brain development, and in particular adolescent brain development. Neuroscience has opened the brain for study with the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Functional MRI (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET). This technology allows scientists to study the living human brain. This rocks my world not only as a parent of a teenager but as a criminologist.

Teenagers are strange creatures. Most of us don't need brain scan technology to tell us that. Every generation has their nuances, but common elements include scattered thinking, impulsivity and a confrontational style of communication. I often find myself staring at my son in disbelief thinking, "Is this situation really happening or am I stuck in some bad 60s movie?" Those who work with juveniles in the criminal justice system have it especially hard as they deal with teens that have made some very bad adult decisions and are stuck between childhood and adulthood in a destructive way. The exciting thing about the emerging brain science is it can help us guide teens through. I heard in a workshop this weekend, "We need to be their auxiliary prefrontal cortex."

Key Findings

  • Activity in the teen brain is similar to the 0-3 fundamental development years
  • The brain might not fully develop until 25 years old
  • The brain develops by trial and error
  • Hormone type and level influence choices and behavior
  • Trauma affects brain development
  • Adults should expect teens to act like teens

Basic Science Stuff

The human brain weighs about three pounds and has two halves connected by trillions of connectors which act as information highways. It is divided into sections. Several sections are the focus in teen brain development:

Cerebellum
This section is the hard lump at the top of the neck. It is the last area to develop and often isn't fully developed until the mid-20s. It is linked to movement and types of social cognition, such as reading social cues. In teens, this translates to frustrations over teen perceived inability to say thank you (appreciation), be on time (courtesy), offering to help out (empathy) and incessant talking about themselves (self-centeredness).

Hippocampus
This section works with another section of the brain to help coordinate short term memory, emotion (gut reaction) and intelligent responses. In teens, this is not yet well coordinated translating to forgetfulness and a then a gut reaction by an under-developed intellect. This creates hundreds of arguments over taking out the trash and also adds to the juvenile justice worker's frustration over inappropriate teen responses to what seem like minor requests.

Hypothalamus
The hypothalamus regulates sleep, sex drive, ovulation, thirst and hunger. This development explains why teens seem to never go to sleep (they are wired to not be sleepy until after 11pm) and why sex is so all encompassing (hormones are increasing and new research points to the possibility adolescence is a critical period for the survival activity of mating).

Amygdala
Referred to as the primal section of the brain, or the reptilian brain, the amygdala represents the most ancient part of the brain. It helps prompt gut impulses and is responsible for survival reactions, such as fight, flight or freeze. Teens rely on this section more than adults who rely on the next section for responses to the world around them.

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