How the Adolescent Brain Challenges the Adult Brain
Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
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 brains.
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.
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
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 long-term decisions.
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.
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 decision making.
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.
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.
F. 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
NEXT ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES =>