The (Fault?) in Our Brains: The Adolescent Odyssey (Dedicated to Bridget)

Long ago, I was talking to my son, right after his 2-year-old sister had chomped down on his arm as he was taking a choking hazard away from her.  Understandably, he was pretty shaken as we applied ice to the red indents which perfectly mimicked her nice set of sharp toddler teeth.

“2-year-olds bite,” I said, “because they don’t have the words and strategies like you and I to work things out.  Their brains are a mess–kind of like a jungle.  That doesn’t make it ok and it doesn’t mean that there won’t be consequences, but we understand, so we need to use it as an opportunity to teach her what she can do next time.  Our response needs to be productive, not punitive.” His sister learned to express her feelings, and the biting disappeared. Proactive, not reactive.

A few years later,  a friend’s daughter went through a phase when she had a meltdown every Monday evening.  It could have been in response to being asked to set the table, her pencil tip breaking, or the chair not feeling just right–it really didn’t matter what the trigger–she needed to break down.

I explained to my friend and her daughter, “The stress of facing school after the weekend, compounded by whatever social traumas were taking place and her teacher assigning the week’s homework leaves her brain overloaded with cortisol.  The meltdowns are her brain’s way of getting rid of that cortisol.”  It didn’t make it ok to tantrum, but we understood what was happening.  We taught her to recognize how to relieve the stress in other ways, and she rarely breaks down anymore.  Proactive, not reactive.

The information that we have about the brain has skyrocketed over the last 20 years.  fMRIs have significantly changed out understandings, particularly of the adolescent brain.  We understand that the adolescent brain is going through significant changes.  We understand that the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to the effects of substance abuse.  We understand that the adolescent brain is at a particularly vulnerable time for risky behavior and bad decisions.  And we now understand that the adolescent brain is still “under construction” until between 22 and 25 years of age.

Legally, an 18-year old is considered an adult.  The irony of that is that 18 is right in the middle of the time that our brains are most vulnerable.  Let’s take a look at why.

For the rest of this blog, I draw on the lens of the Resilient Mindset Model to explain why.  For background information about the model, please see

The jungle that is the brain when we are young has four major transformations during adolescence:

1) The ant cleans house.  Neurologist call this pruning.  Basically, in order to become more efficient, the prefrontal cortex (ant territory) prunes away neurons that have not been used prior to adolescence.  Most of this pruning happens pretty early.

2) Grasshopper gets more treats.  The grasshopper always likes dopamine, which is released in response to pleasurable experiences (primary rewards), but adolescents get bigger dopamine responses in their brains.  That means that their grasshoppers get bigger rewards for pleasure-seeking activities–including all of the social rewards that get that same dopamine response (REACTS)

3) The ant gets detoured.   In adolescence, the brain has two goals: pruning away areas of the brain that have not been used and paving the neuropathways that have been formed. The neuropathways in the prefrontal cortex are being paved in late adolescence/ early adulthood, making it hard for the ant to get to where he wants to go sometimes.  Think about how much harder your morning commute is if the roads are being paved.  Now think about the ant getting detoured when he wants to keep you from answering that text while you are driving.

4) The switching station connection with the ant is still being finished.  When we experience threat, the glowworm on the adult brain switches control from the ant to the grasshopper.  Adolescents often misinterpret fear and danger.  Part of this might be that the prefrontal cortex and the lymbic system are not yet properly connected.

Teens and young adults are primed to make poor choices.  They have less access to their executive functions and their brains are primed for pleasure seeking and risk-taking.  That does not make it ok.  But we need to take into account what is happening in the brain.  We can use these times to teach lessons.  Proactive, not reactive.

We also know that the adolescent/ young adult brain has a lot of plasticity–opportunity to learn.  Yes, there is evidence that during adolescence, learning capacity is extremely strong. It is also a phenomenal time for hightened emotion, new experiences, and opportunities to build confidence.  These years hold all sorts of promise.

Today, my niece, Bridget, turns 18, entering the world of adulthood.  She is a beautiful person, both inside and out, and we are all so proud of the young woman that she has become.  I wrote this blog for her, in hopes that it will help her understand these next few years.  She is an adult, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that come with that title, but evolution has not quite gotten her brain to match the arbitrary 18-year old deadline.

So, Bridget, as you embark on the odyssey of young adulthood, here are a few thoughts:

  •  Know yourself. To thine own self be true.
  • Understand those situations that make you vulnerable to bad decisions.
  •  Use your supports. You have a huge network of people that can help you.
  • Arm yourself with multiple strategies.  When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again (and then know when to cut your losses.)
  •  Be the dragonfly.  Use that vantage point to make mindful decisions.

If you do it right, these next few years can be a wonderful journey.

Happy Birthday, Bridget, we love you very much.


Comments are closed.