Yes, There is an Adolescent Brain: 4 Ways to Help You and Your Adolescent Succeed

There is an adolescent brain, and it is much different than the adult brain.  The adult brain has a fully functioning Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).  This is the part of the brain that allows adults to access their executive functioning and assess subtle nuances in communication.  During adolescence, the PFC is under construction.  Adolescents aren’t able to fully access this part of the brain until age 25 .  This puts parents into a very important role: the role of a surrogate PFC. 

Adolescents are feeling and experiencing life just like everyone else, but in a unique way.

The executive functions of the brain are very important.  They allow for the person to be able to learn.  The PFC governs behaviors such as being able to concentrate, screen out distractions, remain persistent while being frustrated, consciously calming the body down, assessing risk in situations, and managing emotional and behavioral impulses.  According to David Walsh, PhD., the executive function acts like the “air traffic controller” for the brain. 

The executive function has 3 distinct roles:

  1. Working memory – Working memory only lasts seconds to minutes.  It allows the brain to be able to link new information to longer term memories so we can comprehend what is being learned.
  2. Inhibitory controls – The brain’s ability to filter out information and a braking mechanism.  It allows the brain to filter out distractions and manage impulses and temptations.
  3. Mental flexibility – The brain’s ability to think abstractly.  To think “outside the box.”  It allows the person to adjust to new and changing information.

Because the adolescent brain is not using the PFC effectively, the adolescent is being governed by other neurological areas.  One of these areas is the amygdala.  The amygdala is considered to be the “seat of fear and anger.”  Adults rely on the PFC to communicate, while an adolescent’s initial responses are derived from the amygdala. 

McLean Hospital, near Boston, conducted a study lead by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd.  In the study, adults and adolescents were subjected to a series of photographs.  The photographs were of people experiencing various emotional states.  The individual had to identify what emotion was being depicted in the photograph.  Brain scans showed that the adults used their PFC to identify the emotional expression.  While the adults were using the rational part of the brain to read others’ emotions, the adolescents were using their amygdala.  These results show that the adults were more equipped with providing the correct emotional depiction, whereas the adolescents were frequently incorrect.  For example, adolescents were mistaking fear or surprise for anger, and were identifying the emotions in the photographs with their “gut reaction(s).” 

This study gives some insight as to how adolescents think and experience their world much more differently than adults.  Combining differences in the ways adolescents use their brains with changing hormones, it makes sense as to how there can be two different realities coexisting in the same conversation with your adolescent.  This means the adolescent may experience a different perception of the conversation, and react impulsively, thus resulting in a potential argument.  Therefore, it is important to be aware of the varying realities of an adolescent, and begin to adjust your own communication accordingly. 

There are many ways to help improve your communication and your relationship with your adolescent. 

  1. Remember that as an adult, you are the substitute PFC for your adolescent.  That gives you the responsibility to remain more calm and deliberate in your approach to different topics, and to adjust to the changing mood around a particular conversation. 
  2. Expect impulsivity and be patient and flexible. When done on a consistent basis, this strategy can increase a sense of safety and trust in the parent-child relationship. 
  3. Ask questions to make sure you are hearing and understanding the subject matter correctly, as opposed to quickly reacting to your adolescent’s mood, can help keep yourself calm in a stressful conversation. 
  4. Plan out difficult conversations and have an outline for how you are going to handle the potential varying realities in the same discussion. 

Adolescents are feeling and experiencing life just like everyone else, but in a unique way.  We have all had the experience of being an adolescent, so we all know the potential challenges that are being faced during that phase of life.  For more ways to better relate and to your adolescent and improve communication, please contact us! 


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