It’s common knowledge that teenagers’ behaviour and mood swings are down to hormones and puberty. It’s also wrong – in fact the teenage brain is much different than we understood even 10 years ago.
The teenage brain isn’t just a smaller version of the adult brain. In fact it’s still very much a work in progress, and isn’t finished developing physically until the early 20’s. This is at the root of teenager’s behaviour, and understanding it may help you to understand them better.
The brain doesn’t grow substantially larger in the teenage years and early adulthood. Instead of growing in size it grows in complexity, as new connections and neural pathways are formed. This doesn’t happen evenly across the entire brain though. It’s a process that starts at the back of the brain and works its way steadily forward.
The result of this is that the pre-frontal cortex is the last part to mature – the area that deals with planning ahead, decision-making and self-control. It’s not that teenagers lack these abilities, it’s just that their brains can’t send the signals quickly enough to the area at the back of the brain that regulates their emotions.
Understanding how their ability to plan ahead, make decisions, and practice self-control is so compromised can open a door to understanding a teenager’s behaviour.
Why are they always glued to their phone?
Take the common complaint that teenagers are continually on their phones, interacting with them seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. There are two linked reasons for this. Firstly, the teenage brain demands stimulation and input, and the smartphone is a precision designed tool to provide exactly that. The second reason is teenagers’ lack of effective self-regulation – they can lack the ability to easily or independently make a judgement that they have had enough, or that they should do something else.
Why are they so untidy?
Even if they have something else that they need to do their compromised ability to plan ahead means that they will normally wildly underestimate the time a task will involve. The teenage brain ‘s poor ability to plan, and the subsequent impulsive behaviour, are behind a second common complaint – untidiness. Tidiness relies on us understanding the future pay-off of investing the time now in tidying things away, and then making tidying a priority. Neither of these are most teenagers’ strengths, and accounts for why what may be obvious to parents is lost on their teenage children.
Why do they stay up so late and then can’t get out of bed?
This isn’t actually about poor planning or not thinking about the consequences. It’s actually a physical aspect of the teenage brain, as many of those new connections are made during sleep. At the same time during adolescence the body-clock shifts forward, interfering with falling asleep before 11 p.m. or waking up before 8 a.m. They aren’t being lazy or making excuses – teenagers really do need more sleep than the rest of us, and the effect of sleep deprivation on mood is even worse for them.
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