Brain Changes in Teenage Years
Scientists have discovered that our brains physically change in response to our experiences throughout our lives, with the teenage years being a time of significant brain change. This means there is a great opportunity to learn and develop new skills and knowledge, and to become more ‘expert’ at some things. There are also things which become more challenging during the teen years, and it can be helpful to understand why.
Adolescence covers an age range of approximately 11 to 18 years. The first change early in adolescence is that teenage brains undertake a major period of growth and restructuring. Lots of new connections are made between the cells in the brain. This means there is lots of potential for new learning – this is why it’s easier to learn new knowledge and skills when you are a teenager than when you are an adult. Later on, those connections which are not being used regularly get ‘pruned’. This means that the connections that are not used die away while the ones which are used regularly remain and get stronger. So, if we don’t continue to practise skills, we can lose them.
Finally, in late adolescence the connections between brain cells that are used most often are made extremely fast and efficient in a process called ‘myelination’. Myelin is an insulating layer around connections of brain cells. This insulation allows connections to be made more quickly and efficiently. This allows us to become experts at certain skills or activities.
The Adolescent Brain
Teen Brain HD
Trouble with concentration and attention
Being unable to concentrate affects people differently. Some symptoms you may experience include:
- being unable to remember things that occurred a short time ago
- difficulty sitting still
- difficulty thinking clearly
- frequently losing things or having difficulty remembering where things are
- inability to make decisions
- inability to perform complicated tasks
- lack of focus
- lacking physical or mental energy to concentrate
- making careless mistakes
You may notice that it’s harder to concentrate at certain times of day or in certain settings. Others may comment that you appear distracted. You may miss appointments or meetings because of a lack of focus. Sometimes, people call this brain fog.
Lifestyle factors that can affect your concentration include:
- lack of sleep
- lack of exercise
What should I do if I can’t focus?
If you’re having trouble focusing these tips might help:
- Remove distractions. Clear up desk clutter, switch off notifications, and only listen to music if it helps you focus.
- Notice when you lose attention. Identifying a pattern might help you resolve it, and it might prompt you to concentrate better.
- Review your medications. Some drugs and supplements can affect your thinking.
- Practice time blocking. Make a plan to work for one hour then rest or stretch for 5 minutes, for example. Put “busy” on your calendar so people know when is a suitable time to approach you.
- Eat fruit rather than sugary snacks. Sugar can cause your blood glucose levels to spike and dip, making you feel less energetic after a while.
- Keep your brain active. Do puzzles or other activities that keep you thinking actively.
- Practice mindfulness meditation. This can help train your thoughts and bring them back to canter.
- Check the side effects of medications. A number of drugs can cause sleepiness or brain fog.
- Look after your body: Exercise and a varied diet that is rich in essential nutrients can boost your physical wellbeing and may help enhance your mental health.
- Makes lists and set achievable goals. Written lists, plans, and goals can help you prioritize and remember the tasks you need to do without them cluttering your mind.
Signs of hyperactivity in teens
Teens with hyperactivity still have the “itch” to move and they often have to work hard to keep it in check. So while they may not have to get up from their seat in class anymore, they might need to get up from their seat in the cinema in order to move around.
Teens who struggle with hyperactivity might:
- Fidget and tap their feet
- Seem frustrated or impatient when everyone’s just “sitting around”
- Struggle to “stay put” while doing schoolwork
- Interrupt conversations or not listen when other people are talking
- Talk nonstop without noticing what’s going on and how people are reacting
- Constantly touch or handle things in stores or at people’s homes
- Stay up late at night (and seem exhausted during the day)
- Risk-taking behaviour in hyperactive teens
Teens with excess energy need to put that energy somewhere. Often, they’re drawn to higher-risk activities like “extreme sports.”
Risk Taking and Peer Pressure
Adults often think of risk taking as being negative and associated with danger, however it’s a positive and necessary trait for development. Risk taking is important as it pushes us to have new experiences and to challenge ourselves. It is well worth doing, even if we can’t be certain about there being a positive outcome, or that we might experience some uncomfortable feelings associated with it.
All of us are programmed to take some risks in order to succeed, however some of us are bigger risk takers than others. This applies to our teenage years too. Every teenager is an individual and while not all teenagers are risk takers or sensation seekers, there is evidence that risky behaviours peak during the teenage years and that these risks can often be associated with experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Other typical perceived anti-social behaviours such as congregating in large groups, being rude to adults in the community, petty vandalism or free running may also be examples of teenagers taking risks.
What impact do peers have on teenage risk taking?
As mentioned in the section on emotions, for teenagers the sense of self (knowing who you are) is particularly important. Being accepted by peers is more important than being accepted by family, and this has an impact on feelings of self-worth.
Therefore, teens may be very sensitive to others’ opinions, and they may adapt to friends’ expectations and social norms in order to be included in a friendship group. This can also be very difficult for parents and other family members to understand. They have previously been the biggest social influence on their children up until now and may feel like they are being pushed aside and losing their child’s respect. Moreover, they still have a parental responsibility to keep their child safe and to support their decision making, yet there’s a drive for the young person to become independent of their parents.
These are tricky dynamics to navigate. While parents will likely focus on health and safety concerns (such as detrimental effects of smoking, drugs or alcohol) teenagers will have to grapple with the challenges of peer pressure and approval – “what will my peers think if I don’t go along with them?” In some situations, teenagers may take risks when they’re with their friends that they would not take when on their own for fear of being ostracised or ridiculed by a peer group.
Is there a biological explanation for teenage risk taking?
Remember the limbic system is more “in charge” during teenage years. This area gives us rewarding feelings from doing fun things, and this will often include risk taking behaviours. As this brain area is more impulsive and not linked to more careful and logical ways of thinking, there is more likelihood of riskier decisions being made. This helps explain that when you ask a teenager why they have done something risky or unsafe they may reply “because I felt like it”.
So, some impulsive behaviours and problems with concentration may be a part of your teenage brain development. But sometimes your impulsiveness and inattention may cause you significant difficulties in your daily life and you may want to explore whether you have ADHD.