Secrets of the Teenage Brain

What the new developments in adolescent neuroscience tell us about drug use in teenagers

We used to say things like, kids will be kids to describe the behaviour of teens. But today, with an increased understanding of how teenage brains actually work, expressions like this don’t hold up. The newest science on the adolescent brain shows that teenagers are in a much more complicated place than previously thought. When teenagers act poorly, or in ways that don’t make sense to adults, it helps to understand the kinds of things that are going on in their brains.

By better understanding your child’s brain, you can better adjust your parenting to accommodate their needs and perhaps, make the kinds of decisions that can save their lives. The teenage brain is not just a smaller version of an adult brain, it is a fundamentally different mechanism. Understanding the way it is different and what is going in inside it, requires knowing three key factors. When it comes to understanding teens, these three points are critical.

• The hormone factor

This is the one most of us are already somewhat familiar with, but the extent and neurological significance is less well known.

– Did you know that during adolescence a teenager can have up to 30X more hormones in their system than prior to puberty? This radical increase in hormones sends shockwaves through the brain, impacting every aspect of neurology.

– While conventional culture may laugh this off, extreme hormonal fluctuations like this need to be viewed with caution and respect. Hormones fundamentally change our internal experience, increasing stress response, fight or flight response, and heightening reproductive pressure.

• The hyper active limbic system

The limbic system is the emotional center of your brain. It is where you “feel” things and process emotional experience. In teenagers it is highly charged and much more active than in adults.

– The hyper active limbic system means teens “feel” things much more acutely than an adult.

– When teens seem overly emotional or dramatic, it is actually neurologically true that they are experiencing emotions more acutely than an adult does.

– Hormones like testosterone and estrogen have a significant impact on the limbic system. So not only do teens have an over active emotional centre, they are also coping with a rapid increase in hormones which directly work on that centre.

• The undeveloped frontal lobe

The frontal lobe is known as the control centre of the brain, it does things like critical thinking, risk analysis, thinking ahead and planning. New research suggests that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties, in teens it is highly undeveloped.

– The human brain develops back to front – working on things like balance, coordination and emotions prior to higher level skills like planning and judgement.

– The undeveloped frontal lobe means teenagers have trouble with tasks and thinking processes that adults might find easy. This makes it much harder to evaluate risk, to think ahead, and to control impulses.

The synergy of the three factors together

When you combine these three factors together you get a powerful concoction of neurological functions that serve to promote highly emotional states, poor judgement and decision making, and less impulse control. As a result of this and other factors, teens are more susceptible to drug addiction, and more vulnerable to its dangerous effects than any other age range. These neurological factors mean it can be a very challenging time to be a teen. They are struggling with powerful emotions and impulses they are unfamiliar with, and they don’t have the life experience and critical thinking to step back from situations with perspective. Given all of this, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First of all, seek professional help.

The sooner a professional can begin assisting you and your child, the sooner progress can be made. Consider the complicated neurological processes the child is under the influence of. Consider the psychological pressures the child might be under. No one is better suited to supporting your child and family than people who have been trained and are experienced in the field of youth mental health.

Support the frontal lobe.

Teens don’t have the planning and thinking skills that adults do. Do as much as you can to provide structure and planning for your teen.

• If you can find time and space and at least a (partially) willing teen, sit down and try to walk through timelines and outcomes that they may not be able to on their own. It’s much harder for teens to think ahead. What kind of things can you talk about with your teen that might benefit from your ability to think ahead? It is very important that this is not a judgmental process, a critical and tense environment will shut down progress with your teen. Try being vulnerable and open, think back to when you were in difficult times in your life.

Listen and be compassionate.

A highly emotional teen in the midst of drug use and addiction can create a conflict filled environment. As a parent you want to be thoughtful, calm and supportive. Be a leader and a role model, it won’t go unnoticed.

• Staying calm in crisis is one of the most challenging things a parent can do. Having a plan helps. Meditation teachers talk about something called meta-awareness, that is, the part of you that knows you are experiencing something, and yet is separate from that experience. This is where you catch yourself getting triggered and pulled into a conflict and resolve to be a peacemaker in the moment. Staying grounded in a calm and understanding place is much more supportive than escalating conflict. Try to stay focused on what your goal is in the situation rather than getting lost in the conflict.

Knowing about the highly complex and under-developed aspects of the teenage brain can help you stay a little calmer, give you a little bit more perspective and perhaps help explain some confusing behaviour. Knowledge is empowering, the more you can learn about these areas, the more equipped you will be to rise up to challenging situations you find yourself in.

About AARC: Drug and alcohol addiction is an equal-opportunity destroyer. Since 1990, the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC) clinical team have excelled at helping adolescents and their families find their way out of the desperately hopeless pit of addiction. A leader in the field of addiction recovery, AARC continues to help youth and restore families through our fully accredited and internationally recognized treatment program in the heart of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.