the Adolescent Brain Challenges the Adult Brain
Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
What makes the
adolescent brain so challenging to the adult brain? Anyone who has
ever tried to parent, teach or mentor the adolescent brain knows it
can create some frustrating moments. A lot of this frustration can
be blamed on some of the biology unique to the adolescent brain.
In any aged brain,
the region responsible for basic survival needs (eat, flight/fight,
sex) are handled by a region known as the hypothalamus. For obvious
reason, the hypothalamus is powerful, influential and ready to function
right from birth. Biologically speaking, if this area was not given
top priority, the animal may not survive for long.
One of the frustrations
with adolescents is due to the fact that hormones, environment, and
learning, make this survival region of the brain a "hot area" in adolescent
In addition, the
basic survival drives of the hypothalamus don't always agree with
the social structure, morals and safety of society. For the more "civilized"
human behaviors we need to involve higher regions of the brain. Higher
brain regions, in the cortex, can override the hypothalamus. Although
these regions are not given biological priority, they are the "logical"
parts of the brain and are responsible for deciding when basic hypothalamus
drives may not be in our best long-term interest.
A region called
the prefrontal cortex plays the role of arbitrator in making these
critical decisions. It quickly sizes up the situation and makes a
determination which then drives our behavior. It is the prefrontal
cortex then that tells us when to act on our anger, or curtail it,
eat that second piece of dessert, or go without, seek immediate gratification
or hold off for the long term.
some people have a poorly developed or poorly functioning prefrontal
cortex. These people have a hard time controlling impulsive behaviors.
Head trauma, alcohol and drug abuse as well as possible genetic predispositions
can all lead to a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex. Maturity also plays
a big role as this area takes about 20 years to fully develop. Hence,
adolescents may have problems quickly sizing up risks and making good
factors make adolescent brains even more hypothalamus driven. Children
learn what to do with anger by watching other people in their sphere
of influence and what they do when they are angry. Peer-influence
peaks during the teen-age years which means that key role models for
an adolescent are other adolescents.
The hormone, oxytocin,
found in the brain during romantic relationships, tends to settle
and stimulate the hypothalamus during the beginning stages of the
relationship. Anyone working with adolescents knows that they are
always in the midst of "new love", which only further hampers logical
appear to have at least 3 strikes against them when it comes to using
logic to weigh the risks in dangerous or sometimes even everyday types
of decisions. The more primitive regions of their brains are strong
and tend to drive behaviors. The immature region responsible for the
logic of long-term benefits does not always override the impulsive,
survival-oriented hypothalamus. Add any additional trauma to the mix
such as abusive households or drug and alcohol use and the issue becomes
even more severe.
The biology of
brain shows that adolescents still need strong adult guidance and
help with decision making throughout the teen-age years . Time and
good role models will fortunately allow the brain to eventually mature
to match the body.
Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher and speaker
living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the Layered Curriculum®
method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has authored several books and articles
on teaching in mixed-ability classrooms and other problems facing
today's teachers. Full references
and additional teaching and parental tips are available at: http://Help4Teachers.com
Email her: Kathie@brains.org
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