Teenage Emotions and the Adolescent Brain

MI Science Staff: July 2016

Helping teens develop emotionally is an important part of parenting our youth. But, as parents, we may well find ourselves on an emotional roller coaster as we navigate the difficult journey of parenting adolescents. Even if you remember your own teenage years as tumultuous and have a great empathy for your teens, you may find your own ability to regulate your emotions tested.

After reading a number of research articles on the subject of emotions and the adolescent brain, it is apparent that this is still an emerging field of research. Some of the more helpful studies are “reviews” of a group of experiments that have been done. Two such “reviews”, one from 2011 and one from 2016, both conclude that much more research needs to be done before science will have a clear understanding of the processing of emotions and how it differs from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Both reviews point out that sexual differences and differences in age at onset of puberty, complicate the findings of many studies. 1&2

The Piero review (2016) discusses results of eight different experiments involving the “connectivity” of the brain from one particular region to the next. This “connectivity” is found to increase significantly during adolescence, particularly between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The review notes: “Given the largely consistent increases in connectivity between the amygdala and other prefrontal brain regions reported in the studies reviewed here, continuing to examine changes in connectivity is an important direction for future research.”2

At the risk of oversimplifying, one could say that current research on the adolescent brain continues to show that adolescents have not fully developed the cross-communication between the regions of the brain that process emotions.  Until the brain has reached full maturity, even young adults do not have the ability to fully process and regulate their emotions. That means that the adult has to be the adult in the “emotional moments” of interactions. When the teen or young adult is pouring out misplaced anger and disgust, it can be helpful to the adult to consider the source (the teen brain) before responding.

If you have not yet seen the Disney/Pixar movie, INSIDE OUT, I highly recommend that you take the time to view the video. The story is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley, who is experiencing a huge change in her life because of a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The audience gets to see the interaction of 5 of Riley’s emotions: joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger, as she lives through a difficult time in her life.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a family interaction at the dinner table. In this scene we get to see not only Riley’s emotions, but the emotions of her mother and father, as well. When viewed with your children, it can provide a wonderful conversation starter about family interactions. Here is a YouTube link for you: https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=Family+argument+scene+from+Inside+Out&ei=UTF-8&hspart=mozilla

The teenage brain is a challenge not only to the teen, but to all of the adults that the teen interacts with.  Not only does the teen need adult help in making decisions, but also in processing emotions. Parents and other adults can support the development of emotional processing by encouraging conversation that includes feelings. As teens begin to identify their feelings and communicate them, parents need to be prepared to respond in a positive, non-judgmental manner that sets an example for the teen.

References:

  1. Pfeifer JH and Blakemore SJ, “Adolescent social cognitive and affective neuroscience: past, present, and future,” Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2012) 7 (1): 1-10
  2. Piero LB, Saxbe DE, Margolin G, “Basic Emotion processing and the adolescent brain: Task demands, analytic approaches, and trajectories of changes,” Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 2016, 19: 174-189