The Emotional Brain Is in Transition

Teens often use the word ‘drama’ to describe what their lives feel like.  It is this drama that can make working with teens challenging. You can promote a more peaceful adolescence and communicate more effectively with your students and patients by understanding how the teen brain thinks. 

Teens process information differently than do adults.  While adults usually rely on the frontal lobes, the center of reasoning and language, to respond to situations, adolescents rely more on the amygdala; it controls a wide range of emotions.  This means that teens are more likely than adults to respond emotionally to a situation. Then, too, teens may not be able to find the words to express their feelings.  It also means that teens are prone to react more quickly and without considering the consequences of their actions. 

As they move through adolescence, teens learn to read other people’s emotions, but they still frequently misinterpret how others feel.  For example, they may confuse sadness or concern with anger.  Due to all the changes in the brain, teens get slower, for a while, at being able to identify emotions – their own and other people’s.

The developing adolescent brain is very vulnerable to stress and, in emotionally charged situations, teens may overreact. They may push the boundaries and break the rules. They may cry or get angry without apparent reason.  As the brain matures, teens will operate more and more from the cortex, where reasoning and judgment occur.

Teachers and healthcare providers can help support teens in the following ways:

  • Help teens to understand and make sense of their shifting emotions and mood swings by
       educating them about the changes that are occurring in the brain.  Provide opportunities
       for teens to share their feelings with you.  Ask open-ended questions such as, “How did
       that make you feel?”  Develop scenarios and use role-plays to help them practice dealing
       with potentially difficult situations.
  • Clearly state rules and expectations for behavior, and involve teens in creating a system
       of both rewards and consequences.  For example in the classroom, teachers should
       clearly communicate the consequences for unacceptable school performance, such as
       late homework, unexplained missed classes, or failing grades.  Equally important,
       teachers should provide rewards and offer consistent praise for a job well done.
  • Talk to teens about age-appropriate, healthy ways to deal with stress.  A few of the
       many healthy ways to deal with stress include physical exercise, journaling, peer support
       groups, yoga, and meditation.