The Adolescent Brain | Heal For Life

The Adolescent Brain

The adolescent brain is different from the child or adult brain. Teenagers think differently. Their brains are less motivated by rewards, so the rewards have to be greater or more thrilling. During adolescence the brain loses unused connections, permanently trimming away what it doesn’t need. What is left is more functional and efficient.

The teenage brain functions differently as the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed. As the pre-frontal cortex matures, teenagers can reason more effectively, develop better control over impulses and make better judgments. In teenagers, the reactive amygdala is used for decisions rather than the thinking brain when interpreting emotional information.

“It doesn’t mean adolescents can’t make a rational decision or appreciate the difference between right and wrong. It does mean, particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional decisions, they are more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or analyzing the consequences of their actions.” (Steinberg, 2007)

The teenage brain has a well developed accelerator but only a partly developed brake. Although some teens could balance short-term rewards with possible costs, they’re not as able as adults to predict consequences (Steinberg, 2007). Because of the increase in neural development, teens need more sleep and function better if allowed to sleep later in the mornings.

Biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence, meaning it is natural to not be able to fall asleep before 11:00 pm. Teens need about 9 1/4 hours of sleep each night to function best (for some, 8 1/2 hours is enough). Most teens do not get enough sleep. One study found that only 15% reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights. (National Sleep Foundation, 2011)

Brain sculpting takes place in adolescence, making it an exciting but crucial period of brain development (Geid, 2002) and science is only beginning to uncover the implications:

So if a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going [to] survive. (Geid, 2002)

Knowing the differences between the adolescent brain and the adult brain may be helpful in assessment, service provision and empathy. Adolescents generally cannot think the same way that adults do.

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