Teen Brain Development

Weather in Chicago is a lot like a teenager–unpredictable from one moment to the next. Teens are in a phase of change with hormone levels and societal pressures that can make their behaviors and emotions erratic. How many times have you thought or said, “What were you thinking?”

New research helps us understand that it’s not so much what teens are thinking, it’s how they think. Scientists used to think brain development was complete by about age 10. These days, a consensus of neuroscientists agree that the brain is fully developed around the age 25. For some people, brain development may be complete prior to that age, while for others it may end after. The key is that the brain’s frontal lobes are not fully developed in teens and it is this part of the brain that is responsible for controlling impulses and planning ahead.

When a brain is developing, it is vulnerable to the effects of drugs and alcohol. For example:

  • Alcohol slows the communication between neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in coordinating appropriate responses, possibly leading to risky behaviors.*
  • Marijuana also affects the prefrontal cortex by changing the normal patterns of blood flow and impairing decision-making abilities. This can lead users to engage in dangerous activities they wouldn’t normally do.*
  • Drugs, such as ecstasy, can have serious effects on the hypothalamus gland in the brain. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating vital system functions, such as: memory, blood pressure, heart rate, thirst, appetite, sleep, temperature control, breathing, and hormones essential to healthy growth, development and puberty.* Would you open your laptop computer and pour acid into it? The same should apply to your teen’s shoulder-top computer—their brain.

* Source: http://www.theantidrug.com.

Helping Your Teen Become a Future-Oriented Thinker

When your kids were little, you protected them in so many ways: teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street, putting on sunscreen to protect them from sunburns, etc. Now that they are teens, helping them become future-oriented thinkers is an important lesson. Ask your teen to think through consequences of actions before they are presented with the situation. Role play and go over several “what if” scenarios. The key is to present the information in a neutral way and allow your teen to have as much control over their choices as possible–and then discuss the potential outcomes.

Find parent toolkits, talking scenarios for different age groups, and a guide to different kinds of drugs at the Partnership for Drug Free Kids website.

Photo by Vladimir Pustovit under Creative Commons license.

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