Understanding the teen brain

During adolescence the teenage brain is changing at a rate and in ways that have not been experienced since early infancy.

One of the ways that scientists have searched for the causes of mental illness is by studying the development of the brain from birth to adulthood. Powerful new technologies have enabled them to track the growth of the brain and to investigate the connections between brain function, development, and behavior.

The research has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes taking place during the teen years. These findings have altered long-held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation. In key ways, the brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the late 20s.

An understanding of how the brain of an adolescent is changing may help explain a puzzling contradiction of adolescence: young people at this age are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, and yet, for some, this can be a hazardous and unpredictable age. Rapidly changing emotions, altered sleep patterns, increases in urges for independence and rebellion, the need to establish a close peer group, increased sexual drives and risk taking behaviours can cause unfortunate outcomes.

Mortality rates jump between early and late adolescence. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages.

Even though most adolescents come through this transitional age well, it’s important to understand the risk factors for behavior that can have serious consequences. Genes, childhood experience, and the environment in which a young person lives and reaches adolescence, all shape behavior.

Research is revealing how all these factors act in the context of a brain that is actively being re-wired and changing. The additional stresses of academic pressures at school or college, managing bodily changes ,social situations, friendships and peer pressures , establishing values or belief systems and finding a vision for their future mean that modern day adolescence is a hugely stressful time psychologically.

The more we learn, the better we may be able to understand the abilities and vulnerabilities of teens, and the significance of this stage for life-long mental health.

The fact that so much change is taking place beneath the surface may be something for parents to keep in mind during the ups and downs of adolescence.

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