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  • Narda Skov

The Adolescent Brain

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Narda Skov, MPH

Teen Health Educator

Next to infancy, early adolescence is the most dynamic period for brain development-also known as a "window of opportunity"-making this an ideal time for youth to gain and maintain new skills. This infographic, which I had the privilege of working on with my colleagues at ETR, provides insights into why adolescents are prone to seek out novel experiences and excitement, especially in the presence of peers; how emotional context plays a role in the way adolescents think and act; and how trauma and other experiences can impact brain development. Most importantly, the infographic provides tips on what parents and caregivers can do to support healthy adolescent risk-taking and positive learning experiences. Some of what is on the infographic is available for you to read below and take into consideration when parenting your teens. Enjoy!

Adolescent brains are primed for novelty and sensation-seeking. Puberty triggers an increase in dopamine receptors in the brain's reward centers, which means exciting experiences can feel really good in adolescence! At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex has not fully matured to regulate these strong sensations. The dopamine releases from substance use coupled with increased sensation-seeking behavior can also make adolescents more prone to addiction.

The brain reaches its maximum size in early adolescence and fully matures when individuals are in their mid-20s. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional regulation, decision making, and planning, is one of the last brain regions to mature.

Important tips for parents when thinking about the adolescent brain:

  1. Adolescents think and act differently depending on the context. Adolescents are good at making rational decisions in cold cognitive situations (situations that are calm and not emotionally arousing). However, in the heat of the moment - hot cognitive situations - adolescents' decisions are based more on what they're feeling and less on what they're thinking.

  2. Adolescents are more likely to take risks in front of peers. The mere presence of peers, in physical or digital space, activates the reward circuitry in the brain, leading to an increased tendency to seek out novel experiences and excitement.

  3. Adolescent brains are sensitive to stress and trauma. Without the buffering support of safe and supportive relationships and environments, stress and trauma can impair brain structure and function, affecting emotional regulation and other executive functions.

  4. The adolescent brain is shaped by experience. The process of trying new things, learning from them, and failing-with the support of caring adults- is essential for developing and learning new social, emotional, and problem solving skills.

Tips & Tricks for Parents!

Remember -risk-taking is a normal part of adolescence. To support healthy risk-taking and positive learning experiences, adults can take these actions:

  • Teach adolescents about the opportunities and vulnerabilities of their developing brain.

  • Support opportunities for healthy risk-taking, such as public speaking or trying a new hobby.

  • Provide youth with practice for heat-of-the-moment decision-making, especially in front of peers.

  • Support young people to recognize and regulate strong emotions.

  • Encourage youth to reflect, learn, and grow from their experiences.

  • Teach and model healthy coping skills, like self-regulation and effective problem solving.

  • Harness the positive power of peers to encourage health-promoting experiences (i.e. invite influential peers to share positive information on sexual health and healthy relationships, use in-class peer leaders to model and facilitate key activities, provide service-learning experiences with peers and friends.

  • Facilitate connections to mental health services and supports.

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