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Another Perspective

The Brain of a Teenager

Recently in professional training seminars I’ve been exposed to conversations about the brain of teenagers. The most significant finding from longitudinal studies involving MRI’s indicates that a teen’s brain is not fully developed. This finding helps to account for some typical teenage behavior.

In the fully developed brain of an adult, the logical and emotional components are capable of communicating with one another. Good decisions (reasoned and informed) are made when this communication occurs.

In the brain of a teenager, however, the white, fatty substance (myelin) that allows the logical and emotional parts to communicate is not yet developed. It usually takes until the mid-20s for the myelin to be fully present. Until the myelin develops, these studies found, decisions are made in the part of the brain that is linked to emotion and stress. This explains why teens have a greater likelihood of behaving with heightened emotion and excitement. It also helps explain why teens are more impulsive, quicker to take risks, and are less able to see the consequence of their decisions and actions.

These findings make sense out of why teenage driving, use of alcohol and other drugs, and gun use can be so dangerous and extreme. It also helps explain why it is this age group, more than any other, that volunteers to fight wars.

At one training it was suggested that the lack of myelin accounts for why the music we are exposed to when we are in our teens stays with us the rest of our lives. The music goes directly into our emotional system and forms a lasting impression. PBS brings back music from older people’s youth in order to raise money to fund their various activities. The emotional bond with the music from one’s teenage years is so strong that the fund-raising works well.

The implications of these MRI findings for parenting teens are significant. Clear boundaries are necessary, as are heavy doses of compassion and patience. Poor judgment and impulsivity are to be expected. Separating the person from the behaviors, the being from the doing, is vital. After all, adult brain is not yet fully developed.

What are your thoughts about these findings?
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