Teenagers – Out of Control in a Neuro-Physiological Cauldron?

Do you have teenagers around you? Children? Employees? Does their behaviour annoy, startle, shock, even frighten you at times? Do you get frustrated by their short attention spans, their risk taking, their inability to see things rationally or to appreciate the consequences of their actions?

Recent research shows that our brain reaches about 95 percent of its final size by the time we are age 6. But the development of higher functions – including judgement and the ability to control impulses – is not complete until around age 25.

Horror crash

In October 2006 four young men, aged 16 and 17, from Lismore in Northern New South Wales died in a horrendous car crash. The 17 year old driver walked away with minor physical injuries but no doubt with massive long-term psychological and emotional damage.

The accident has sparked another round of debate about what can be done to reduce crash and death rates of young people in cars. Various statistics are being cited and there is little doubt that younger drivers and their passengers are at greatest risk of being killed or seriously injured in car accidents.

What’s the answer?

What’s the answer? Is it to legislate? There are arguments that tougher restrictions on new (P-plate) drivers would lower the crash rates and resulting carnage. Some of the restrictions being discussed include curfews and a limit on the number of passengers in the car. And, of course, for all the arguments in favour of these steps, there are contrary views – some based in research and evidence and some no doubt based in politics.

Where does the answer lie? Is it in restrictions? Is it graphic advertisements showing the consequences of speeding and/or alcohol? Is it in having compulsory courses on road safety that include talks by paralysed accident victims?

It’s the amygdala again

I wish I had the answer. However what I do believe is that an important component is to understand that the teenage brain is not a fully developed brain. It does not yet have the same levels of cognitive reasoning as fully grown adults.

Researcher Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at McLean Belmont Hospital near Boston, Mass., did a series of functional MRIs which showed a neurological basis for the emotionality of teens. “Kids and young adolescents rely heavily on the amygdala, a structure in the temporal lobes associated with emotional and gut reactions,” she reported. This is different from adults, who rely on other parts of the brain associated with planning and judgment.

More fMRI work done by Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health shows that in fact, contrary to what many have believed, the pre-frontal cortex does not fully develop until we are around 25. This means that the ability to anticipate and understand consequences of our actions and controlling impulses is not generally in full operation until our mid-twenties. So when we yell at our kids: will you just grow up – it’s not as simple as that.

Then there’s the hormones and the ‘pack’

Add in some more biology. At the same time that the amygdala is playing a huge role in determining young people’s behaviour, teenage boys are also being flooded with testosterone as part of the normal development of their reproductive systems. Some researchers associate testosterone with aggression although other studies warn that the link is not clear cut.

Next add in some group dynamics. Researchers have also shown that young people will take on more risks and unsocial behaviours when they are in a group. Peer pressure spurs the young people on. And as the amygdala is dominating and the pre-frontal cortex is still forming, it seems to me to make sense that all this contributes to the teenage bundles of emotional Molotov cocktails we live and work with.

Controlling our own reactions

I write none of this to say that because of physiology we should not hold young people responsible for their behaviours. Experts continue their research to work out ways to deal with these challenges which are a natural part of growing up.

But perhaps this explanation may help adults dealing with young people to remember to keep their own amygdalae in check and avoid The Almond Effect®. If adults also react emotionally in difficult situations with teenagers that may simply exacerbate the challenges of an already heated situation. And this could have potentially devastating long-term consequences on relationships in families and at work.

Of course this discussion also opens up huge questions like the age at which we hand over our cars, give the right to vote, the legal right to drink alcohol, the licence to get married, the order to go to war. Watch the film Jarhead for insights on the latter.

I’d be really interested in your comments and stories about the role of the amygdala and young people in family life and at work – email Anne . Look forward to hearing from you.

In the meantime my heart goes out to families where their teenagers have been killed or injured in car crashes. And to those also who have to support their young ones through other potentially life changing scenarios such as drug overdoses or violent brawls. It is amazing how complex a mass weighing about 1.5kg is and what complexity it brings.