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Teen Brains

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Community news

Interagency Presentation on the Teen Brain Development for Mental Health Month

Lyndsee Cooper, MA, LPC, is a counselor at Val Verde Regional Medical Center specializing in children and teens. At this month’s Interagency Meeting she presented information on teen brain development to a very enthusiastic crowd.

“There are developmental behaviors that are common to most teens,” she said, “The changes occurring in the teen brain result in a physical inability to think things through. Impulsivity and reward motivation are driving forces for teens.” The brain does not develop fully until a human is in their late 20s or even their early 30s. Adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. Although it is at its full growth by age 11 in girls and age 14 in boys, this does not mean it is an adult brain. The brain develops from back to front. The front of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is the last to develop. This is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses. Knowing this explains a lot about teen behavior.

“The adolescent brain is developing connections,” said Cooper, “The brain is thought to develop and connect functionally in stages. The emotional areas of the brain (the limbic system) are present at birth, but regulation of emotions moves from being more of a shared responsibility (with parents) in childhood, to an individual responsibility in adolescence. This process requires new connections to be formed between the cortical or higher level thinking and the emotional areas of the brain. It also explains a lot about teen behavior.”

So, does this mean we just throw up our hands and let teens behave in inappropriate or damaging ways? Of course not. Cooper pointed out one of the key things parents can do is keep the lines of communication open. Help teens process when something happens. Ask them how they are feeling? How did it feel when that happened? What do you think could happen next time that would make for a better outcome? At this point in development, teens need support in thinking things through and making decisions. They need help in controlling impulsive behavior that may lead to dangerous risk taking. Without open communication with a parent or other trusted adult, their normal risk taking behavior at this age can lead to the development of dangerous habits like self-harm, drug and/or alcohol abuse and an inability to control emotions.

“Teen brains are flexible, adaptable and able to learn quickly,” said Cooper, ”but intervention by adults is crucial for their successful development. From adults, teens can get assistance with developing healthy brains which will lead to a lot less mental health issues as adults.”

Some of the statistics on mental health and teenagers is disturbing. One in five adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 suffer from a mental health disorder. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged ten to 34. 50% of mental illnesses surface by age 14. Parents and other supportive adults play a very important role in helping teens learn and develop good habits for their mental health.

Keep the lines of communication wide open as teens travel towards adulthood. Being aware of changes in behavior, mood, self-image, and eating habits and seeking early intervention can mean the difference between a child who will suffer and one who will thrive. Reward positive behaviors immediately. Listen but ask if they want your input. Ask if your teen would like to speak to someone besides you and find a reliable, supportive adult or mental health professional. Know what is important to your teen and talk about their interests. Involve them in family activities based on their interests, not yours. Set clear boundaries and expectations and model healthy ways to cope. And most importantly, get help when it is needed. For more information on mental health services for teens call 830.282.0855.