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Adolescent brain

Moody, impulsive, self-centred?  Creative, passionate, open to new ideas?  All of the above? 

Blame it on the adolescent brain.  As young people move into adolescence, there are big changes happening under their skulls.  The wiring of their brain is getting upgraded.

During adolescence, brain cells are coated with a fatty substance that speeds up brain activity.  The cells that are used form many more connections with other cells, and the ones that aren't used die off.  These changes make the brain a leaner, meaner machine capable of faster, and more complex, processing.

These changes start in the part of the brain responsible for basic functions like coordination, sleep and arousal.  If you have a teenager living in your home, you've probably noticed the changes in sleep habits – many teens become night owls and getting up in the morning is difficult.  A day which begins at 10:00 might work better for the adolescent brain than a 7:00 start to the day.

Better coordination and balance develop in adolescence and allow teens to excel in sports of all kinds, dance and playing musical instruments. The parts of the brain that handle emotions are also changing.  It turns out that these parts of the brain are more sensitive in adolescence than they are in adulthood.  Adolescents feel emotions – both highs and lows – more strongly and more deeply than adults (including their parents!).  Living with a teenager can feel like an emotional rollercoaster ride.

It will come as no surprise to parents of teens that the last parts of the brain to get upgraded are those that are responsible for judgment, planning, and complex decision-making.  Adolescents gradually learn to balance emotions and past experiences with the demands of the present to make better decisions.  Risks, and not just rewards, are now taken into account.  Behaviour becomes more thoughtful, less impulsive.  Teens become more predictable and consistent.  Parents become happier and less stressed!

The pace of change is very rapid during adolescence, but it continues well into the mid-20s.  The changes which happen in the brain are necessary for young people to become mature, responsible adults. 

Watch this 5-minute video to find out what is going on inside the adolescent brain.


Some scientists now believe that adolescents are key to human civilization.  Adolescents don't "see" barriers and limitations the way adults do.  Or if they do see barriers, they ignore them.   This allows them to be open to new ways of thinking about old problems, and gives them the freedom to find creative solutions.   

When you have 45 minutes to spare, consider watching "Surviving :) The Teenage Brain" a recent episode on David Suzuki's The Nature of Things.  You may look at your own teenager through different eyes, and maybe even with admiration!

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