The Teenage Brain: Understanding Adolescents and Their Risky Behaviours

14 Mar

GroupofFriendsonTheSquarebyVladoThe teenage years have forever been characterized as a time of turmoil and change. It is during adolescence that youth are trying to discover who they are, where they belong, their likes and dislikes, and what they want for their futures. In order to exert their increased independence and to help prepare adolescents for adulthood, teens will pull away from their parents and move towards their peer groups. Indeed, the majority of the adolescents I have worked with are incredibly loyal to and protective of their friends (sometimes caring more about their buddies than about themselves).

An aspect of adolescence that is often concerning to parents (and to adults in general) is teenagers’ tendency to engage in experimentation and risky behaviours as part of this self-discovery process. It is not uncommon to hear parents worry about their teen engaging in unprotected sex, having multiple sexual partners, drinking alcohol, consuming drugs, skipping school, engaging in illegal activities, driving at high speeds, and other dangerous activities. Teenagers seem to be more likely to make poor decisions and choices that can put themselves in harms way. Many teens may think they are invincible and nothing bad will happen to them.

It is also during the adolescent years that the major mental health problems can emerge, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addictions, and psychotic disorders. Unfortunately, I have also seen an increase in adolescents engaging in self-mutilation (such as cutting) and adolescents reporting both suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. As such, one also wonders about the increased vulnerability to the transitions and changes in the brain associated with adolescence.

HeAndFriendsbyVladoIn a recent NICABM webinar as part of the Brain Science Series, Dr. Daniel Siegel explained that neurological changes that occur in the teenage brain (defined as ages 12 to 24) in the limbic area, prefrontal cortex, and dopamine system (i.e., reward centre) ultimately compels adolescents to take risks, engage socially with their peers to belong and survive, and seek out new and novel experiences. Because of the remodelling of the brain, Dr. Siegel explained that teenagers engage in risky behaviours, not just because of the increased difficulty resisting impulses in early adolescence, but because of what he called “hyper-rational thinking.” Hyper-rational thinking is where the limbic area of the brain is skewed in its appraisal of an activity by minimizing the cons or the dangers and maximizing or overemphasizing the pros. That is, while teenagers may know the dangers associated with an activity, they may still engage in that activity because they are not evaluating the meaning of the downside and they only seem to see the potential upside. GoldenScalesbyVichayaKiatying-AngsuleeOne way I understand this is to imagine teenagers’ decision-making scale as consistently tipped to the “Yes, Go, and Do” side where the “No, Stop, and Don’t” side is generally forgotten or ignored.

So now that we have a better understanding of why teenagers are more likely to make poor decisions and engage in risky behaviours, perhaps it will be a bit easier to relate and connect to your teen.

How to Help Adolescents Make Wise Decisions?

Dr. Siegel proposes some possible solutions include helping teenagers use intuitive reasoning (i.e., engaging the neural networks around the heart and intestines). That is, we want teens to have greater self-awareness of the signals in their bodies and of what is happening within, to be able to listen to their gut feelings and heartfelt sense, and to follow their internal compasses.

Mindfulness practices, meditation, and yoga can all help increase awareness of what is happening in the present moment in the body and in the mind. For example, practices such as learning to follow the breath and the accompanying sensations of cool air entering the nose and warm air leaving on the exhalation teaches us how to self-observe and naturally calms blood pressure and slows the heart rate. Encouraging adolescents to pay attention and tune into both the physical sensations in their bodies (e.g., breathing and heart rate) and their embodied sense of emotions or their gut instincts will be beneficial in guiding their decision-making. If a teenager can learn to “check-in” with themselves and notice how a certain decision “feels” in their body (even if they cannot put it into words), then they may be more inclined to make a better choice.

Of course, no matter their age, your relationship with your child will always be important and serves as a strong foundation for their social and emotional growth and development. You may want to refer to a previous post for tips on How to Effectively Communicate with Your Teen.

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Best wishes,
Dr. Stephanie

To learn more about Dr. Siegel’s work, you may want to check out his recently released book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain and his website.

First two images courtesy of Vlado /
Scale image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee /