Teens and Behavior: Is It All Just Hormones?

The short answer is no, not entirely.  I have been reading the wonderful, accessible book “The Teenaged Brain” by Frances E. Jensen, MD and Amy Ellis Nutt.  When we look at a teenager from a neurophysiology perspective sees more than just  hormones at work.  Some of the main points I took away from the first few chapters in this book regarding adolescent and young adult physiology follows:

Yes, hormones do rise.  The concentration of hormones does change; however the levels of hormones are not any different than the levels found in young adults.  So, if hormone levels are not any different than young adults, than what is the neurophysiologic challenge adolescents are facing that seems to make them more impulsive, more emotional than many  young adults?   (Although judging by some of the idiocy we are seeing on college campuses as of late, I guess this could be argued! LOL)

Part of the challenge is the way the brain is responding and  trying to regulate hormones  that have been previously dormant.  The brain is changing, and the  receptors in the brain and the neurotransmitters that go with these changes is profound.  Sex hormones are especially active in the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain.

Adolescents have an ability to reason that is as sharp as an adult’s reasoning, which is why an adolescent can perform well on standardized testing, for example.  Memory and the ability to learn new information is at an all-time high.   However, reasoning often seems to fall short in real life, for example,  a teenager’s perception of risk often falls far short of the reality of risk.  Why is this?

Part of this stems from the maturation pattern of the brain and part of it stems from the fact that a teenager’s brain gets more of a sense of reward than an adult brain because of the increased amount of dopamine that is released. 

The brain matures from the back to the front, and the parietal lobes mature late and the  frontal lobes are the last area to mature.  This is important because the parietal lobes help regulate being able to switch between tasks and help the frontal lobes to focus .  The frontal lobes help send inhibiting messages to the reward centers of the brain – but they are not fully developed and develop last.  They also function in prospective memory – the ability to hold in your mind the intention to perform a certain action at a certain time in the future.  (This skill is almost physiologically stagnant in children ages 10-14, so please don’t just expect them to remember!)Also, the prefrontal cortex that processes negative information, doesn’t work as well in teenagers’ brains.

When we crave what the brain perceives on a physiologic level as a “reward” and we get  a dopamine rush, the teenaged brain is less equipped to deal with shutting the dopamine reward of risky behavior down because of the less developed brain physiology.  Remember, the teenaged brain is about 80 percent mature and teens are hypersensitive from the standpoint of brain physiology to dopamine rewards.  The teenaged brain also releases more dopamine in response to a potential “reward” situation so it can be particularly difficult for a teen to resist situations, especially if negative consequences are never experienced, or if negative consequences are experienced, they are less likely to learn from the situation because they do not process negative information in the same way as a mature adult.  Therefore,  they are more likely to keep repeating the behavior.   This can help explain, for example, things such as addiction in teenagers is more strongly “stuck” in an adolescent’s brain and risk and reward system.

Based upon the above, we know the adolescents consistently disregard risks associated with sexual activity, alcohol, drug use.  We can add to this mixture a society that has devalued sexual activity and the peer role in risk-taking behavior.  Social isolation for girls and a lack of extra-curricular activities for boys increased risk-taking behavior (page 113).  This has nothing to do with the physiology of the brain per se, but we know environment and physiology always mix.    Mood and emotions also can be of profound importance in decision-making moments in teens as well.   

Lots of food for thought in this book.  I highly recommend this as a great read to help you understand and parent your teenager!

Blessings,
Carrie

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One thought on “Teens and Behavior: Is It All Just Hormones?

  1. Pingback: » Teens and Behavior: Is It All Just Hormones?

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