According to Neuroscientist Frances Jensen, there are several serious misconceptions we’ve had about teenagers and the teenage brain. (See my blog post New Research: 4 Misconceptions about Teenage Brains).
- Teens are impulsive and emotional because of surging hormones
- Teens are impulsive and emotional because they want to be difficult and different
- If teens get involved with drugs, drinking, and sex, their brains are resilient and they will rebound without suffering permanent effects
- The die is cast at puberty: the IQ or apparent talents in teenagers stay that way for the rest of their life
Misconception 1: Teens are impulsive and emotional because of surging hormones
For years, the study of puberty has been focused on “hormones”. These days, hormones get the blame for almost everything a teenager/adolescent does. Since their discovery, sex hormones have become the favorite explanation of adolescent behavior. However, Dr. Jensen says we are
blaming the messenger when we cite hormones as the culprit…..teenagers don’t have a higher hormone level than young adults—they just react differently to hormones.
When a toddler throws a tantrum, we don’t blame “hormones”….we simply understand that they haven’t learned to control themselves yet.
The teenage brain is “seeing” these hormones for the first time. Because of that, the brain hasn’t yet figured out how to modulate the body’s response to this new influx of chemicals.
Research has shown that the concentration of chemicals such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone change drastically as kids enter the teenage years. In girls, the hormones fluctuate with the monthly cycle. both estrogen and progesterone are linked in the brain with the chemicals that control moods. In boys, there can be 30 times more testosterone in the body than before puberty.
Sex hormones are particularly active in the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain.
This is partly why adolescents are more volatile. They seek out experiences that give a strong emotional charge.
This double whammy—a jacked-up, stimulus-seeking brain not yet fully capable of making mature decisions—hits teens pretty hard, and the consequences to them, and their families, can sometimes be catastrophic.
It’s only been in the last few years that scientists have figured out WHY hormones work the way they do.
While hormones can explain some of what is going on, there is much more at play in the teenage brain, where new connections between brain areas are being built–and many chemicals, especially neurotransmitters, the brain’s “messengers,” are in flux.
Adolescence is a Time of True Wonder
This is WHY adolescence is a time of true wonder. Because of the flexibility and growth of the brain, adolescents have a window of opportunity with an increased capacity for remarkable accomplishments. But flexibility, growth, and exuberance are a double-edged sword because an “open” and excitable brain also can be adversely affected by stress, drugs, chemical substances, and any number of changes in the environment. And because of an adolescent’s often overactive brain, those influences can result in problems dramatically more serious than they are for adults.
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