How Does the Adolescent Brain Work and Develop?

April 8, 2019
When it comes to the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, adolescence can be a complex period for youth. So, how does the adolescent brain work and how does it develop?

Today, we want to talk some time to talk about the unimaginable changes that occur in the adolescent brain.

Plasticity is one of the main attributes when it comes to the human brain. Especially during the early years, neural connections form and multiply by the millions as individuals acquire new knowledge.

The period in which the brain is most malleable is from birth until the age of 20. The adolescent brain has, in this sense, a demanding job and unique characteristics. It’s important for parents to understand this, at least superficially.

From within a mother’s womb and all throughout childhood, the brain gradually develops. By the time an individual reaches adolescence, this development has concluded. However, one more phase remains: maturity.

The maturation process of the adolescent brain

To get an idea, the 2015 movie Inside Out illustrates the maturation process of the adolescent brain quite well. 

In the film, a young girl named Riley reaches puberty. She and her parents move to a new city and Riley finds herself having to say goodbye to her old life and friends.

The plot of this movie develops with Riley’s emotions as the main characters, acting and debating within her mind. Her brain is structured around a central command station that connects the worlds of her family, games, childhood and others.

Shortly after the movie begins, Riley’s brain is in a state of chaos. Sadness begins to take over her present and it seems to be triumphing over the joy that was so present in Riley’s childhood.

Finally, Riley will come to leave certain illusion of her childhood world behind. Just a few memories of her infancy remain in tact, while others will come to disappear forever. Happiness regains her position and lives harmoniously with the rest of the emotions, including sadness.

In reality, during this stage, something known as a synaptic pruning takes place. This process refers to structural changes through which grey matter turns into white matter.

The connections of teenagers mutate and some disappear definitively and make way for others. These are connections that are in disuse and that the adolescent brain discards in an unprecedented space-saving process.

How Does the Adolescent Brain Work and Develop?

This maturation process in adolescents is localized – it starts in the back of their necks and ends in the forehead. When adults ask themselves why teens can be so reckless, the answer may just be that the maturation process hasn’t ended yet.

What happens is that the last place for neural reorganization to occur is in the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for judgement, impulse control decision making, etc.

The growth of the adolescent brain

As in every other part of the body, the adolescent brain develops at each individual’s own pace. Likewise, each part of the brain itself grows in a different way. Understanding these developmental differences is a crucial part of accompanying the emotional development of our teens.

For example, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (PFC), located in the area just behind the face, doesn’t reach maturity until the age of 24. However, the amygdala, located in the center of the brain, completes its own developmental process long before that time.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for a person’s mood, impulses and abstract thinking. Therefore, the part of the brain that is responsible for thinking about the future hasn’t yet fully developed in teens.

“The last place for neural reorganization to occur is in the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for judgement, impulse control, decision making, etc.”

Advice for families with teens

Of course, not all adolescents experience conflicts as they go through this development process. However, knowing “what’s going on in their heads” will improve their performance in different activities.

Thinking about the future is one of the most motivating ways to maximize adolescent brain development.

How Does the Adolescent Brain Work and Develop?

When adolescents have a plan about what to do when they finish school, this means that the neural transition is occurring in a healthy way. Teens who plan for their future adequately develop their abstract thought. In the future, they’ll be adults who are able to manage their emotions in a healthy way.

It’s also important to point out that, sometimes, emotional issues have nothing to do with cognitive or neural development. When teenagers are going through a crisis, the first thing we need to do is evaluate their environment. We also need to take into account their quality of life.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that healthy teens should get enough sleep, eat well, be social and participate in activities they enjoy. If none of these things are occurring, then it’s time to dialogue and perhaps ask for outside assistance.

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