Brain Development in Teenagers

Brain Development in Teenagers

Adolescent brains are going through a monumental transformational process, which actually accounts for more behavioral changes than any other factor. Research over the last twenty years has given us a much more sophisticated understanding of adolescent brain development. Like other organs, the human brain goes through an amazing period of growth until around age twenty-five, with maturity coming sooner for young women and later for young men. But the brain is not simply growing in size, it changes in ways that are unique to the stage of adolescence as it develops the characteristics that prepare teenagers for adulthood.

From the womb through pre-puberty and on into adulthood, our brains are growing and developing, creating neural connections of all kinds. A major remodeling process of these connections happens during adolescence, enabling a higher level of sophistication. This remodeling process involves a “pruning back” activity, trimming out underutilized connections, and then laying down extra amounts of myelin, the substance that increases the speed of often-used connections. The net effect of this transition is that a person goes from having a brain filled with a lot of varied information in childhood to one of streamlined specialization and integration. Integration allows the many parts and functions of the brain to know what the others are doing.

Much of this integration process takes place in the prefrontal cortex, where the most significant growth in the brain occurs during adolescence. This is the most distinctly human part of the brain. It’s the area that plans and organizes, modulates mood, controls impulses, and takes into account the long-term consequences of different choices—all those functions that we consider to be aspects of maturity. It is the part of the brain where abstract thinking takes place, enabling teens for the first time to see many options for solving problems and become aware of the many and varied ways to think about issues. It is during this period of development that teens begin to ponder the meaning of life and understand that their parents are just people with their own ideas and ways of doing things.

They begin to see that perhaps there are many other reasonable ways to do things as well. It is the maturation of the prefrontal cortex that allows teens to self-reflect and to understand their own personalities, their feelings, and their emotional needs as well as the emotional needs of others.

An excerpt from Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle by Neil D. Brown, LCSW 

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