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Adolescent Brain Development: Not an Oxymoron
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Adolescent Brain Development: Not an Oxymoron

10/01/11
By Mendy Mays, EdD, LPCC, NCC

Ask an adolescent, “Why did you do that?” and 
you will often get the response, “Because I felt like it.” Ask, “What were you thinking?” and you often get the response, “I wasn’t thinking.” Although these answers are very frustrating, they may be the most honest responses the adolescent can give. 


Adolescents often look and sound like adults, but their brains are far from fully developed. The processes occurring in the adolescent brain have a huge impact on their thought processes and behaviors. While it is not in the adolescent’s best interest for adults to excuse erratic and inappropriate behavior due to developmental issues, understanding those processes can enable adults to understand what is happening within the adolescent and better guide him or her to better decisions.

 

A Tendency to Use the ‘Cave Man’ Part of the Brain

The first issue is that research shows adolescents rely on the limbic system in much of their decision-making. The limbic system of the brain helps us perceive threats quickly and bypasses logical thought, among other things. When working with adolescents on impulse control, I explain the use of this area as “the cave man” part of the brain. It makes decisions quickly, not considering long-term consequences. It is very necessary for safety in situations that require quick action, such as running out of a burning building, but not as helpful when assessing how to handle a disagreement with a teacher. 

Brain scans of adolescents show a much higher level of limbic activity than adults when making many decisions, including looking at pictures of faces to label the emotions they show. This constant threat assessment may account for much of the defensiveness that seems typical of adolescent behavior.

Another issue that results from operating mainly from the limbic system is the craving for stimulation. The limbic system does not tolerate boredom well. The solutions for easing that boredom are usually not logical, well-thought out plans, so often adolescents make poor choices in an effort to satisfy this need for excitement. As adults, we also have this craving for stimulation, but we have another part of our brain that assesses and regulates limbic activity. This region is the prefrontal cortex, which I call the “thinking part of the brain,” when working with adolescents. 

Brain scans of adults show the prefrontal cortex area of the brain is the most used for decision-making in various situations. This area of the brain is not fully developed in adolescents, so self-regulation is also underdeveloped. In fact, the prefrontal cortex begins a period of rapid growth in adolescence. Since this is the area of the brain that manages impulse control, decision-making and problem-solving, there are major implications for counselors, teachers, and parents who are in-volved in the lives of adolescents.

 

Brain Growth Is Not Uniform

At certain points in a person’s life, brain growth will be triggered in a region, and there will be a “blossoming” of neural connections there. Because the brain cannot efficiently maintain all of those connections, a “pruning” process then begins to streamline those connections that are most used and eliminate those not proved to be beneficial. During this window of opportunity, much of the wiring that will be in place for life is formed. 

Connections can be modified later, but with much more difficulty. Therefore, maximizing the potential for growth during these periods has lifelong benefits. The reverse is also true. Not taking advantage of these windows of opportunities may present lifelong challenges for individuals.

To illustrate this phenomenon, think about a child around the age of 2, when the window for speech development is active. The child may only know only a few functional words, such as “mama,” “bottle,” “doggie,” etc. Then, almost overnight it seems, the child’s vocabulary expands exponentially. Parents are amazed at the words their child suddenly uses. Usually the child receives lots of encouragement and becomes a fluent speaker in short order. When factors such as hearing loss, lack of stimulation, and autism make learning language difficult, the individual finds building speech skills and vocabulary very challenging later. 

So, think about how children are encouraged to learn language. Parents usually show excitement and encourage the child to speak as much as possible. The child receives lots of smiles and verbal prompts to practice this skill. When the child misspeaks, it is met with only gentle correction and encouragement to keep trying. Situations such as calling grandma are set up for the child to show off this skill. There is little negativity and impatience with the child’s limited ability. The child feels safe in trying this new skill and enjoys the challenge. 

The same types of encouragement occur for the periods of learning to walk and learning to read.  Adolescents are also in a period of brain growth. The skills they are attempting to master are problem-solving, impulse-control, and logical thinking, among others. But they do not often receive the same type of encouragement occur for the periods of learning to walk and learning to read.  Adolescents are also in a period of brain growth. The skills they are attempting to master are problem-solving, impulse-control, and logical thinking, among others. But they do not often receive the same type of encouragement for trying out these skills that they did in earlier stages of brain development.

 

How Can Adults Help the Adolescent Become 
a Responsible, Rational Adult?

First of all, to parallel the process of encouraging speech, the adolescent needs lots of opportunities to practice the new skills in safe areas. Parents need to recognize opportunities to let the adolescent problem-solve or make choices and stand back and watch the process. If the choice is a good one, then rewarding it with praise is crucial. If it is not, then gentle correction and helping the adolescent examine the logic that led to the errors can make it a teachable moment. 

Whatever the outcome, the adolescent needs reassurance that making mistakes is part of mastering a skill. This newfound cognitive capability can be overwhelming at times, and the adolescent needs structure in how to operate this suddenly more active part of the brain.

 

Working With Teens

Unfortunately not all parents of adolescents are willing or even interested in this type of endeavor. They expect adult thinking skills to magically appear in concert with the adolescent’s changing body shape and hair growth. We as clinical mental health counselors can still offer opportunities for our adolescent clients to practice those skills and stretch their cognitive muscles at this critical developmental period.

Practice can be offered in many creative ways. Examining the behaviors of others in a scenario, a role play—or even better, a movie or book they like—can help them understand how to approach a problem, generate a lot of possible alternative options, evaluate behavior by examining the consequences, and gain insight into the behavior of others. 

Show a popular TV show and stop in the middle for questions such as, “What would you do?” “What could they have done differently?” “Why do you suppose they chose that option?” 

Similarly, their own recent conflicts can be analyzed during session much like the “Monday morning quarterback” to hopefully help them consider more choices in a future similar situation.

Adolescents often make poor choices because they read a situation wrong, and misunderstand the emotions of the other person. Playing a TV show without sound and having them guess what the relationship is between the characters and what each is feeling can be used as an assessment to see how well they “read” people. This technique can also be used as a teaching tool for them to hypothesize and then check their guesses.

No article about adolescents is complete without the mention of peer pressure and its effect on teen behavior. What is often misunderstood is that an adolescent is not often pressured by group members to join their group. 

The pressure comes from the adolescent’s mistaken logic in picking out a group they would like to join and focusing on a characteristic of that group and then changing their behavior accordingly. For example, a girl looks at a group of popular girls and they are all thin. She decides that she cannot be popular unless she is thin, so she then starts rigorous dieting and weight-loss strategies, thinking that is the link that will get her what she wants. 

As clinical mental health counselors, we can help adolescents examine what they hope to accomplish by being in that group and the likelihood that they have chosen a behavior that will have a good outcome. In the above example, the girl may only want attention from boys, yet her behavior has major health repercussions without even a guarantee the group will accept her. The session can also be used to examine the role the adolescent wants and alternatives for more productive ways to achieve it.

Many issues arise with adolescent clients, but the root of a large part of them has to do with making poor choices. Meeting them where they are developmentally and intentionally engaging them in situations to foster the growth of those problem-solving and impulse-control skills can go a long way in facilitating their growth into well-adjusted adulthood.

Melinda Mays, EdD, LPCC, NCC, is an assistant professor at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, where she serves as the course steward for the “Adolescent Interventions” course. She is a retired middle school counselor of 12 years, which is where she became interested in the study of adolescent behavior. To request more information about her July con-ference presentation on this topic or comment on this article, con-tact her at maysm@lindsey.edu.

For more on adolescent brain development, see 
the October 2011 issue of the National Geographic >, and “The Brain That Changes Itself,” by Norman Doidge, MD.

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