The Adolescent Brain: What’s Going On in There?

During adolescence, the brain is under construction developing from front to back. That means the brain’s CEO, the “prefrontal cortex” (located in the front of the brain), is developed last. Why is that important to know? Because the prefrontal cortex is the area that controls decision-making, planning, problem-solving, and impulse control. That means adolescents often lack the skills needed to stop and think in the moment, leading to those questionable decisions that make us scratch our heads and say “What were they thinking?!”

The adolescent brain goes through three important phases of development before being sculpted into an adult brain:

Phase 1: Blossoming - A sort of explosion happens in the brain where an overabundance of electrical connections is made. This allows for lots of growth and learning to happen, but the over abundance also leads to clouded thinking and poor judgment.

Phase 2: Pruning - In an effort to reduce this excess of connections, the brain then begins to strip away the underused connections in a “use it or lose it” approach. This is a crucial stage because it presents a window of opportunity where positive patterns of behavior and thinking can be reinforced. On the flip side, it is also a time when negative patterns, such as poor self-esteem or aggression can be locked in. Once these patterns are locked they follow us into adulthood and become very difficult to change.

Phase 3: Myelination – The final phase is like the glazing process used to set a clay sculpture. Each time a connection is used it becomes coated or insulated, causing those connections to become stronger and faster. The down side is the more a connection is used and insulated, the harder it is to undo or change. So if you start an unhealthy habit during adolescence, like smoking cigarettes, it’s harder to quit during adulthood due to this process. On the positive side, things such as learning 2+2 = 4 become set in our brains and can be recalled with minimal effort in adulthood.

Beside the major construction happening in the brain, adolescents are also dealing with fluctuations in hormones. This also contributes to the sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality changes and mood swings you may see.

Adolescence can be exhausting and overwhelming for parents, adults, and the adolescent’s themselves. The most important thing to do is become educated about what exactly is going on in an effort to help guide the child through this chaotic and confusing time. Education also helps adults keep their own emotions in check, reducing stress levels and preventing unwanted conflicts and arguments.