the teenage psyche

Journey to the Center of the Teenage Psyche

Adolescent Development

Researchers and educators have been lecturing about the importance of early childhood education for years. It’s common knowledge that a child’s brain is undergoing rapid growth and development during the toddler years. To maximize this period of brain development, society has implemented a wide array of educational activities and specialized programming for the young children of today. However, a human brain undergoes another surge of development during adolescence.

With society’s primary focus on developing early childhood education, people may not realize the vital development a teenager’s brain undergoes. The years between early childhood and adulthood are valuable formative years. This period of life includes more developmental milestones than the stereotypical awkward hormones and acne. Developing an understanding of the teen psyche’s strengths and vulnerabilities will ensure these valuable years are not wasted.

Physiological Changes in the Brain

According to Doctor Robert Hedaya, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Georgetown University Hospital and Founder of the National Center for Whole Psychiatry, “During the teen years, under the influence of massive new hormonal messages, as well as current needs and experiences, the teenager’s brain is being reshaped, and reconstructed.”

He also says that “what a teen does and is exposed to during this critical time in life, has a large influence on the teen’s future, because experience and current needs shape the pruning and sprouting process in the brain.”

Doctor Hedaya notes that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in the teen’s brain is undeveloped and improperly balanced as it relates to the emotional part of the brain, thus unable to make rational decisions. For the teen, most decisions are fueled by emotion and what “feels good”. These findings on the adolescent brain go a long way in explaining why teenagers are so susceptible to peer pressure.

Neuroscience proves that the frontal cortex, determines the quality of judgment, self-control, and sensible planning of the brain, develops slowly throughout teenage adolescence. When not fully matured, the frontal cortex is physically unable to make rational and disciplined decisions alongside the emotional portion of the brain.

Research has also noted gender differences in the development of the brain. David K. Urion, an associate professor of neurology who treats children with cognitive impairments, and Frances E. Jensen, a professor of neurology, explain that part of the brain which processes information grows during childhood and starts to lessen, climaxing in girls around 12 to 14 years old and manifests in males close to two years later. Research suggests girls and boys may comprehend challenging material at different stages impacting academic performance. Education systems may need to reconsider theories and methods on educating teens.

Recognizing Emotional Responses

Adolescent Development

In a study mapping the differences between teenage and adult brains done by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, the director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, she discovered that when it comes to identifying fear:

Regarding these results, Yurgelun-Todd said, “One of the implications of this work is that the brain is responding differently to the outside world in teenagers compared to adults. And in particular, with emotional information, the teenager’s brain may be responding with more of a gut reaction than an executive or more thinking kind of response. And if that’s the case, then one of the things that you expect is that you’ll have more of an impulsive behavioral response, instead of a necessarily thoughtful or measured kind of response.”

A study by the National Institute of Health proposed  the part of the brain which restrains risky and impulsive behavior, such as reckless driving, and thinking skills, is not fully developed until the age of 25. Dr. Hedaya claims “for the teen, however, the PFC is undeveloped, and the emotional brain rules the moment, until the PFC is developed in the mid-twenties. The teen thinks: “This is going to be exciting!”-if he thinks at all”.

Jensen says on the subject of the teen brain, “It’s a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.” The brain is only about 80% developed in teens, making it no surprise that rational decisions can be hard to come by for adolescents. Development of a mature thought process takes time.

Research during the last decade fueled by technology, relying on magnetic resonance imaging, revealed young brains have fast-growing synapses and sections that remain detached until the mid 20s. Leaving teens open to influences from the environment. These changes in the brain leave the teenager prone to impulsive behavior. This occurs even without the surge of hormones and genetic predispositions.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology notices typical adolescent behaviors:  

  • appearance changes
  • withdrawal from home/family life
  • Increased arguments
  • emotional ups and downs,
  • experimentation with drugs and alcohol

The Science of Sleep

Adolescent Development

A recent study published in Preventive Medicine, links extreme sleep deprivation to 12 different outcomes for teens.  These results range from obesity, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies.

Adolescent Development

The study did find that getting six or seven hours of sleep every night did not increase a teen’s risk for health or behavioral problems any more than those who receive eight or more hours of sleep.

Other things, like alcohol, sleep deprivation, and the rapid rate of information given to teens in the electronic age, also affect individual teens differently. They are more sensitive to stimulation than the average adult. A teen will become addicted to substances much more easily than an adult.

Video game addictions are rising in the teen population.  According to studies, males are three times more likely than females to be addicted to video games.  Professor Allan Reiss, who studied brain stimulation in gamers, found violent and competitive games tended to “stimulate the mesocorticolimbic center of a male’s brain. This region is typically associated with reward and addiction.”

In May 2013, “internet use disorder” (IUD) was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. To be considered for the manual, research had to prove screen time became “a regular habit that has the potential to disrupt daily life, but also that there is neurological evidence to back up that claim. Like other addictions, screen time creates notable changes in brain chemistry – most notably, in the release of dopamine.”

Teens and Addiction

Addictions are no laughing matter. Developing teen brains are more susceptible to forming addictions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier the drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to more serious abuse, which poses a special challenge to adolescents.”

In a study done by Jensen, rat brain cells were exposed to alcohol, which blocks certain synaptic activity. In this study, when the alcohol was washed out, adult cells recovered  quickly, while adolescent cells remained “disabled.” The area most undeveloped, the prefrontal cortex, is highly impacted. Causing under-function to a large degree.

Teenagers’ brains are susceptible to alcohol effects. Research illustrates strong correlations between age and intensity of when teens start drinking. These are indicators of later alcohol abuse and addiction. These scientific reasonings support a 21-year-old drinking age, despite criticism from the general population.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, claims “exposing the brain to alcohol during this period (before age 21) may interrupt key processes of brain development” and “alcohol–induced brain damage may persist.” This is commonly referred to as “arrested development”. Stalling mental and emotional progress, this leaves the addict stuck in certain development stages.

Adolescent Development

Drug fatalities “more than doubled among teens and young adults between 2000 and 2008, and these drug-induced fatalities are not being driven by illegal street drugs but rather by prescription drug abuse”. Cough and cold medicines are easy to find and access. Teens are also ingesting prescription drugs, a survey reported, because “close to one-third of parents believe prescription stimulants can improve their teen’s academic performance”.

Risky and Self-Destructive Behaviors

Teenagers also engage in more risky behaviors that are considered abnormal.

Adolescent DevelopmentSelf-harm behaviors are considered abnormal and in the United States alone there are approximately two million cases documented each year. These behaviors include cutting, self-strangulation, branding, burning, and other extreme self inflicted injuries. Dr. Stuart Goldman, co-director of the Mood Disorder Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, informs that teens hurt themselves “as a form of stress management or self punishment when feeling overwhelmed is nothing new”.

study coming from Cornell University shows self-harm behaviors, when exposed to stress and feelings of helplessness, is more common in teens than most people know. Many teens who self-harm, inform doctors they learned the techniques from friends or the Internet. The study noted that 12 to 37 percent of teens during early adolescence “cut”, self-inflicting scratches and lacerations. Females tend to make up 60 percent of people who participate in self-harming behaviors. Close to 50 percent of people who engage in mutilation practices tend to begin at the age of 14 and may continue until their 20’s.

Self-strangulation, more commonly referred to as “the choking game”, is another form of self-harm behaviors in teens. Teens deprive their brains of oxygen to get a rush similar to being “high”.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teens “choke each other or use a noose to choke themselves. After just a short time, children can pass out, which may lead to serious injury or even death from hanging or strangulation”.

Listed below are some statistics from the CDC:

  • Boys were much more likely to die from the choking game than girls; 87% of victims were boys.
  • Most of the children that died were 11-16 years old (89%).
  • Nearly all of the children who died were playing the game alone when they died.
  • Deaths have occurred all over the United States; the choking game isn’t limited to one area of the country.

Mental Disorders in Teenagers

The teenage years are when a lot of mental disorders become recognized by showing symptoms of  irrational behaviors. Schizophrenia often is noticed during the adolescent years. In a review of Dr. Chris Hollis’ research, in a May 2000 issue of “Advances in Psychiatric Treatment”, teenagers with schizophrenia might “engage in bizarre behavior or speech. For instance, they may walk backwards or move repetitively. Bizarre, repetitive behavior is more characteristic of adolescent schizophrenia”.

Confused thinking, disorganized speech, hallucinations, delusions, displays no emotions, and poor hygiene are symptoms of schizophrenia. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of the people who had 2 or more of the symptoms listed below developed schizophrenia:

  • Genetic history
  • High levels of thoughts that make little sense
  • Suspicion and/or paranoia
  • Social withdrawal
  • Substance abuse

Teenagers are expected to assume adult roles later and later. Because of this, their brains are not expected to develop until much later than was common in years past. The teenager’s brain fully develops between the ages of 18-23.

The Science And Management of Addictions notes, “the wiring for logical thought is used more and more over time the connections become more robust, and when this process nears completion, parts of nerves become coated in a fatty layer called a “myelin sheath.” Like insulation on a wire, this fatty layer allows the nerve connections to process faster, making rational, reasoned decision-making quicker and more automatic.”

Around the 18th year, a teen’s “number of connections in the brain has been reduced to around 500 trillion – the same number the young adult had as an 8-month old”. The brain now lacks the ability to quickly adapt, but the brain is stronger and more stable. These connections give every person a unique personality through thoughts and emotions.  

Don’t Be So Quick to Blame

Society blames a lot of teenage problems on argumentative personalities, hormones, and clumsiness. The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of growth happening inside their young minds. It is important to take the journey to the center of the teenage mind to understand how teenagers think and behave in certain situations.

By acknowledging how a teenage brain develops, educators and parents will begin to understand the complexities of the adolescent mind. Optimal activities and understandings will help harness this adolescent brain growth to benefit everyone. Today’s teenagers deserve a society that fulfills and enriches this developmental period to provide the right resources.

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