Adolescents Are Impulsive Because Their Brains Are Developing

Adolescents Are Impulsive Because Their Brains Are Developing

The teenage brain is not fully developed. For the brain to completely reach maturity, it can take an adolescent well into their 20s, even their late 20s to develop completely. Specifically, prefrontal and frontal cortex are obviously part of the adolescent brain, but they are not fully formed and do not have full “access” to these parts of the brain. This is the neuroscience explanation given by neurologist and author Dr. Frances Jensen as she discussed her book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults with NPR.

In the adolescent brain, the frontal and prefrontal cortex aren’t accessed with the same rapidity as the adult brain, which is why adolescents can act more impulsively. The frontal and prefrontal cortex house important executive functions like judgment and decision-making. Risky behaviors, thrill seeking, and impulsivity, are not simply symptoms of “teenagehood” but symptoms of the developing adolescent brain.

When addiction comes into the picture, Jensen explains, it happens as a way of learning. The younger brain is more adept to learn quickly, even if the brain doesn’t learn “lessons” when it comes to decision making. “It’s in the reward-seeking area of your brain,” Jensen describes, “the limbic system, some place called the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area.” She emphasizes that addiction is more efficient in the adolescent brain. “They build a reward circuit around that substance to a much stronger, harder, longer, stronger addiction. Just like learning a fact is more efficient, sadly, addiction is more efficient in the adolescent brain.”

Parents and adolescents should know that the adolescent brain is more prone to developing not only an addiction, but a strong addiction. Jensen warns against the myth of adolescent resiliency or minimizing substance use by adolescents to being a passing phase of their development. “The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain,” she emphasizes, “They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than in the adult.”

If addiction has come into the picture, early intervention is key. The longer a substance addiction lasts into adolescence, the greater the risk for developing a lifelong issue into adulthood. Affecting the brain means affecting the development of the brain, which can cause problems in school, among peers, and in the ability to have healthy relationships later in life.


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