The Plight of the Teenager

Here in New Zealand, I have a host sister. She is 14 and in Year 10 of High School (which translates to 9th grade in the US).

She is, on most days, an extremely bright, insightful, and level headed young girl.

On other days, she is not. Some days she has fleeting moments of such intense emotions that result in screaming, crying, and door slamming.  I remember this time in my life, too. I have yet again to feel such blinding rage and despair than how I felt when I wasn’t invited to a party or someone decided to stop being my friend at age 12. Or even worse, if my dad asked if I was crabby.

According to National Geographic, we have evolution to thank for this.

I read an article a while ago in NatGeo (what us cool kids call it) that detailed the neurological reorganization that happens in our brains during this time called adolescence.

It highlighted three things: neural restructuring, increased risk-taking behavior, and heightened social importance.

Neural Restructuring

Sure, we all know that our brains aren’t done growing until, like, 25 or something. But the adolescent brain is literally rewiring itself between ages 12 and 20. In brain scans, teenagers used different parts of their brains to complete certain self-restricting tasks than adults did. The brain is creating new neural pathways during this time and connecting areas that weren’t connected before. The article likens our teenagers’ physical clumsiness while they grow into their new bodies to the cognitive clumsiness we see as they learn how to use their new brains. That’s why they do stupid stuff! Their brains are a work in progress.

Increased Risk-Taking Behavior

Teens take more risks. We can make that statement with pretty good confidence without all the scientific studies that actually prove it (just look up “epic fail” on youtube for your empirical evidence).  But the authors of the National Geographic article propose that this may be a successful evolutionary trait for the human species. This time period of our life span is, theoretically, meant for our children to leave the nest. In this sense, a predisposition for risk taking is extremely beneficial for those who are going to leave the comfort of their homes and venture out into the real world. Does this justify taking a skateboard down a flight of stairs? Probably not. But if adolescence were such a detriment to our society, evolution would have weeded that period out by now.

Heightened Social Importance

Their brains are rewiring and they’re getting ready to leave their parents.  The teenage brain is actually configured in such a way that it directly links oxytocin, a neural hormone that makes us happy, with social situations. Some researchers suggest that the brain does this because social skills prove beneficial to survival (because of course someone thought to measure the correlation between social activity in rats and monkeys with feeding, nesting, and breeding patterns). The teenage brain has linked social relationships to survival. So when your 13 year old cousin says that her life is over because Jessica was flirting with her ex-boyfriend, its because her brain actually thinks her life will be over if she doesn’t have these relationships.

So the next time you think this new generation is going to pot, remember that they are enduring a reprogramming similar to the progression of the Atari to the Xbox as well as experiencing all six seasons of Dawson’s Creek in a matter of years (hopefully sans the teacher-student affair).

In my experience, I’ve been most successful working with teenagers when I react to their problems as they perceive them. I listen and console instead of reminding them that this is a phase that they will grow out of. Sure, it’s because of hormones and chemicals, but the problems they face during this time are probably the biggest problems they’ve had to face during their life (not always, but hopefully).

I mean, I bet you’d be upset if you broke your leg and someone told you, “Oh, it’s just the chemicals in your brain telling you that you feel pain. It’s just a phase you’re going through. It’ll pass.”

You can find the article, “Teenage Brains,” here. I highly recommend the read.

Disclaimer: Although I have an extremely useful and practical undergraduate degree in Psychology, I am not a psychologist, neurologist, or behavioralist. This post is about the aforementioned article and my personal experience. There could be errors in my information. This is the internet.

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