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Risky Business: The Brain and Behaviour in Teens

Dr. Tonmoy Sharma

“What were you thinking?” “Have you lost your mind?” These oft-repeated questions have been directed at teenagers over the millennia in response to their illogical, irresponsible and – at times – frankly dangerous behaviours. Whether taking drugs and drinking, engaging in risky sex or pulling scary stunt to impress their peers, teens have driven parents, teachers and other adults crazy with their inexplicable actions that put themselves and others at risk. So, what gives? Why do young people do the things they do with no regard for the consequences?

Many theories have been forwarded, from the fact that adolescents feel immortal and delight in defying parental authority, to youths’ need to mimic the actions of their peers and get a ‘high,’ an adrenaline rush, from misbehaving. All the above may play a role, but recent research has revealed a surprising fact. The teen brain itself may be to blame.

Research has shown that a region of the brain called the amygdala, responsible for reactions such as fear, reading social cues and aggressive behavior, develops early in adolescence.  Another area, the frontal cortex, which controls reasoning and decision-making, develops more slowly, and is still forming well into a person’s 20s. The frontal cortex helps to control the emotions of the amygdala but is not as effective at doing so until later in life, well after adolescence ends.

According to studies of brain images, scientists have found that the adolescent brain works differently than the adult brain when it comes to decision-making and problem-solving. The reactive and emotional amygdala dominates, and the logical prefrontal cortex takes a back seat. This dynamic makes teens more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors, act on their impulses, get into fights, and have accidents or falls.  As illogical as it seems, the brain’s functioning makes teens less likely to think before they act, consider the consequences of their actions, and avoid inappropriate or dangerous behavior.

The environment that teens grow up in is also important to their brain functioning. Studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex is particularly susceptible to being shaped by life experiences in adolescence, such as stress and drugs of abuse. Changes in prefrontal cortex development during this time can have long-term consequences later in life. Other research has shown that elevated levels of a stress hormone called cortisol can trigger changes in the brain during adolescence that can result in serious behavioral problems and mental illnesses. Growing up isolated or in a chaotic environment, for example, can increase levels of cortisol, triggering problems that can last into adulthood or even for life.

What is parent to do? Science has shown that preventive care is vital during adolescence to help their brains develop normally. Although strong emotions and changing moods are normal in adolescents to a point, addiction to drugs or alcohol; harming oneself (such as cutting, thoughts of suicide); or depression that does not go away are examples of behaviors that indicate a serious issue.

Protecting teens from social stressors, such as isolation and neglect, can help to lower cortisol. A safe, loving and nurturing environment can actually make the teen brain healthier. Fostering daily habits that reduce cortisol and increase ‘feel good’ brain chemical such as dopamine and oxytocin is important.


Healthy habits include physical activity, creating strong familial and friendship bonds, getting enough sleep and having creative outlets, such as art or music. If signs of a serious mental health and/or addiction problem surface, teens need professional therapy and social support immediately to stop the brain from developing abnormally. Research has proven that, in teens,

the brain is running the show, but a nurturing environment, social support and getting professional help when needed can place adolescents on the path to a brain-healthy adulthood.

Is the Chief Executive Officer of Sovereign Health. His research includes extensive work in the areas of psychosis and memory disorders and he has published more than 150 academic papers and book chapters in the behavioural health field of cognition.

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