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The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress

February 15, 2013  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

This article is based on information from the Society for Neuroscience and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Teenagers and adults often do not agree, but new brain research is providing information on why.

Although adolescence is often characterized by increased independence and a desire for knowledge and exploration, it is also a time when brain changes can result in high- risk behaviors, addiction vulnerability, and mental illness, as different parts of the teen brain mature at different rates.

Many teens, for example, use adolescence as a time to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Research studies have found that up to 70 percent of high school seniors used alcohol in the previous year. And, the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of drugs and alcohol, including becoming addicted later in life more than teens who don't use drugs before age 21.

Scientists once thought that most of the human brain's development ended within the first few years of life. Now, thanks to technology and adolescent research, scientists are learning more about the teenage brain both in health and in disease. We know now that the brain continues to develop at least into a person's twenties.

Different parts of the brain change and develop during the teen years. Sections of the brain associated with more basic functions, such as the motor and sensory areas, mature early. Areas involved in planning, decision-making, and reasoning, which are important for controlling impulses and emotions, begin to reach adult dimension during the early twenties. Also, the brain's reward center is more active during adolescence than in adulthood, partially accounting for a teenager's need for "instant gratification."

Risky Behavior

Considering the stage of their brain development, teens are more likely to act on impulse, more likely to misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, and less likely to think twice, change their mind, or pause to consider the consequences of their actions. For example: a teen at a party where alcohol is being served may be more likely to engage in competitive drinking of "shots" and wind up with alcohol poisoning; an aroused teen may be more likely to engage in unsafe or unwanted sexual activity; and, an anxious teen with a gun in a gas station or a convenience store, is significantly more likely to pull the trigger than an adult would be under the exact same circumstances.

Your Adolescent's Social and Emotional Development

The following is an outline of teen's social and emotional development:

Early Adolescence (approximately 11-13 years)

  • struggle with sense of identity 
  • feel awkward about one's self and one's body; worry about being normal
  • increased conflict with parents; realize that parents are not perfect
  • increased influence of peer group
  • desire for independence
  • tendency to return to "childish" behavior when stressed
  • moodiness; rule and limit testing
  • growing sexual interest; greater interest in privacy

Middle Adolescence (approximately 14-18 years)

  • intense self-involvement, changing between high expectations and poor self-concept
  • continued adjustment to changing body, worries about being normal
  • tendency to distance selves from parents, continued drive for independence
  • driven to make friends and greater reliance on them, popularity can be an important issue
  • feelings of love and passion; increased sexual interest

Late Adolescence (approximately 19-24 years)

  • firmer sense of identity, including sexual identity
  • increased emotional stability
  • increased concern for others
  • increased independence and self-reliance
  • peer relationships remain important
  • development of more serious relationships
  • social and cultural traditions regain importance


Two of our highly recommended health-related websites have excellent articles about parenting teens:
A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Teen Years
Parenting Skills: Tips for Raising Teens


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