What makes teens seem disrespectful, appear lazy, and have obnoxiously strong opinions? (And why parents and teachers should increase their empathy towards adolescents)
We’ve discussed how we can better communicate and offer emotional support to preteens and teens, but do you know what drives teens to behave like they do? The changes to our bodies during this time period are self-evident, but the neurological changes, the changes we sometimes forget about, are the fundamental processes of adolescence. These changes in the brain are responsible for many of the teen behaviors adults find frustrating and even maddening. So, what’s exactly going on up there?
Unlike an adult, teens have less of a buffer between their amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. When thinking about the brain, making a fist the “wrong” way, with the thumb tucked under instead of on the outside of our fingers, can be helpful. In this model, our thumb represents the amygdala, and the fingers represent the pre-frontal cortex. The amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for generating emotions, is located deep inside our brains. In teens, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed so when an emotional response comes from the amygdala, the pre-frontal cortex is not as good at filtering the response as it would be in an adult brain. In fact, a healthy young brain is not as capable as an adult brain until age 25. Going back to our model of the brain, the brain of adolescents has much thinner pointer, middle, ring, and pinky fingers covering the same adult sized amygdala. Remembering that when a teenager yells at us they are experiencing a more intense level of anger than we as adults experience, can help us to not respond in kind.
The teenage brain releases melatonin two to three hours later than an adult brain. As most of us know, melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland that causes sleepiness. If an adult was unable to fall asleep before midnight, getting up in time to get to school (work) by 8am on a consistent basis would be very difficult. We would also be pretty irritable. Teens naturally stay up later than adults and so they will often sleep later into the morning when given a chance. Some school districts have even proposed a later start for high schools in order to accommodate this difference. What we may sometimes mistake for pure laziness, is actually a natural function of the teenage brain.
Teens have less dopamine than adults. Dopamine are the neurotransmitters in our brains that control our reward and pleasure centers and help us regulate emotional responses. Dopamine additionally aids with the flow of information between thoughts and emotions. The smaller amount of dopamine only compounds the less developed pre-frontal cortex of teens and makes emotional regulation even more difficult. Teenage moodiness can be explained by the lower dopamine level as can extreme risk-taking behaviors. By taking risks that adults might find unfathomable, teens stimulate their reward center and increase dopamine.
The adolescent period of development is meant to prepare us to be independent from our caregivers by finding our own identity. Our biology supports this process, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Adjusting to all of these newfound feelings and thoughts is not always (never) easy. As adults we can help by validating the difficulties of being a teen, promoting independent decision making, and providing nonjudgmental support as the child seeks to find who they are and how they fit into society. Of utmost importance is positively affirming the teen when they behave responsibly. This will have a far greater impact than abjectly condemning them when they make mistakes.
Sara Culpepper, Licensed Professional Counselor, loves helping women and teen girls improve their relationships with themselves, internalize that their worth is not connected to their appearance, and express their genuine nature. Sara helps women understand that eating disorders and emotional dysregulation can be due to societal pressures. She enjoys providing education regarding intuitive eating, health at every size, and feminism. To talk with her regarding treatment in the state of North Carolina, please schedule a free consultation.