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The Perfect Storm: Adolescent Development and the Teenage Brain

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

Adolescence is one of the most challenging, stressful, and turbulent times for teenagers and their parents. Teenagers are faced with puberty, peer pressure, and trying to figure out how they fit into the world. Their brains are not fully developed, leading them to act more impulsively and emotionally. Parents are faced with balancing the responsibilities of parenting with their teenager’s increased independence. All of these factors create the “perfect storm” for teenagers and parents.

During puberty, teenagers experience a surge of hormones which lead to volatile emotions, mood swings, and impulsive behavior. They also develop an interest in romantic relationships and sex. As their bodies mature, overwhelming concerns about their physical appearance, attractiveness, and “fitting in” contribute to teenage anxiety and depression.

Adolescent thinking is evolving from the simplistic compliance of childhood to the more complex reasoning and discernment of adulthood. Teenagers begin to question rules, parents, religion, and societal expectations they learned as children, and start to question the meaning and purpose of life. Their focus shifts to themselves, frequently to the exclusion of others, and their belief that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are unique. Adolescents commonly believe that they are invincible —leading to risky behaviors such as high-speed driving, unprotected sex, or drug and alcohol use.

Adolescents face the following developmental challenges:

  • Adjusting to sexually maturing bodies and feelings

  • Developing and applying abstract thinking skills

  • Developing and applying new perspectives on human relationships

  • Developing and applying new coping skills in areas such as decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict resolution

  • Identifying meaningful moral standards, values, and belief systems

  • Understanding and expressing more complex emotional experiences

  • Forming friendships that are mutually close and supportive

  • Establishing key aspects of identity

  • Meeting the demands of increasingly mature roles and responsibilities

  • Renegotiating relationships with adults in parenting roles

Adolescent behavior and moods are challenging for parents to understand and communication with adolescents is typically difficult.

Psychiatrist and author Richard Friedman asks, “Why do teenagers act crazy?” Parents have often shared that they are baffled by their teenagers’ behaviors, attitudes, and emotions.

In short, the answer to this question lies in the nature of adolescent brain development.

  • Recent research has found that the human brain is not fully developed until approximately 25 years of age.

  • Adolescence is a period of profound brain development.

  • The emotional and impulsive part of the brain (the amygdala in the limbic system) develops before the center of the brain responsible for impulse control, executive functioning, and decision-making (the prefrontal cortex). The amygdala responds to fear; the prefrontal cortex evaluates risk. Adolescent brains are wired for fear and anxiety, but have an undeveloped capacity for calm reasoning.

  • The immaturity of the adolescent brain affects decision-making, impulsivity, and the understanding of the consequences of one’s behavior.

  • The hippocampus – the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory—is not fully developed.

It should come as no surprise, then, that adolescence often marks the onset of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, behavioral disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorders, which, in particular, stunt brain development.

This is all a lot to navigate for both adolescents and their parents, which is why it can be hard for parents to differentiate between normal adolescent development and mental health disorders that go beyond normal development. Communicating their thoughts and feelings, especially in light of the many ways a teenager’s brain is still developing, is complicated and difficult for them. It’s no wonder they say “fine” or “good” when we ask how they are. That understanding, while all well and good, doesn’t make any of this experience any easier for anyone. So what can you do as a parent? Here are some helpful tips:

1) Stay calm — it is important to manage your own emotions and practice self-care. Communicating in a calm way will help you listen while also getting your message across, and without escalating the situation emotionally. This prevents you from undermining your authority as a parent and will limit triggering the natural defensiveness of teenagers.

2) Practice Self Care — Taking care of yourself is necessary for managing your own stress and emotions and will enable you to be a more effective parent. Take time for yourself and take advantage of healthy coping practices such as exercising, socializing with friends, deep breathing exercises and meditation, taking a vacation, and spending time with pets.

3) Don’t take it personally — All parents are dealing with similar issues. Looking at your child through the lens of adolescent development will help you to not personalize your teen’s behavior towards you.

4) Determine appropriate times to communicateWhen you communicate is sometimes just as important as what you communicate. Choose times when you are in a good place emotionally and when your child will be more open to listen – not first thing in the morning, or before bed. Sometimes it is necessary to take time-outs and finish conversations later when emotions cool down. “Let’s sleep on it and finish the conversation tomorrow,” may be a good strategy, as long as you’re not trying to avoid the topic by way of procrastination.

5) Set clear expectations — Unclear rules and expectations only confuse teenagers and will cause uncertainty and conflict.

6) Incorporate teenagers into conversations whenever possible — Teenagers are developing their identities and their own voices. Showing them that you value their input helps build trust and understanding.

7) Develop balance — Strike a balance between your child’s increased level of independence and your responsibilities as a parent. Learn to recognize when you’re “over parenting.” Often it’s helpful to “pick your battles.”

8) Schedule activities together — Try to plan and schedule fun and healthy family activities in order to spend quality time together. Whenever possible, get your teen’s input. Participating in activities that you both enjoy will strengthen your relationship.

9) Utilize Support — Speak to other parents, friends, and family members, while remembering that everyone has different experiences, and nobody knows your child better than you. Teachers and school counselors can be valuable resources. Utilizing support early will improve the process and lead to better outcomes.

Outside professionals are often helpful in creating strategies to cope with stressful situations, either before or after they become critical. Several of Gooding Wellness’ clinicians are also school-based, meaning they have a deep knowledge of adolescent culture. Their experience in this environment gives them a unique perspective on what is considered “typical” teen misjudgement, and what is more concerning behavior.

We’re here to help and support teenagers and their parents as they navigate through the “storm” by providing family therapy, parenting skills training, and support for parents. Our goal is to work cooperatively with the entire family to help adolescents and teenagers develop and strengthen healthy coping skills, socialization skills, and social outlets.

Navigating this “perfect storm” of adolescence is complicated and demanding, but you don’t have to do it alone.

Peter Juliano, LCSW, CASAC, has been helping adolescents, adults, and families struggling with addiction and mental health disorders for more than 10 years. He will be part of a group presentation on “Incorporating Families in Addiction Treatment” on March 31, 2023, at Mountainside Addiction Treatment Center.

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Clinical Director

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