Judgment Call: Maturity, Emotions and the Teenage Brain

What color is the dress?

This question has been asked countless times in the last few weeks. From Internet feeds to office water coolers, people have been buzzing over the color composition of a simple dress. Was it gold and white or blue and black? To add fuel to the debate, different theories abound as to why people can’t agree on the answer. These theories vary from trauma or stress affecting the perception of color to understanding how the brain perceives shadows to influence pigment.

It has been proven that the dress was blue and black. However, no matter what side of the dress debate you were on, this fascinating conversation introduced many people to the wonders of the human brain. The simple social dilemma of the infamous dress seen around the world can easily be compared to a teen’s judgment skills and developing brain. A lot of inaccurate information and unpredictable behaviors can leave parents scratching their heads. This often leads to the questioning of a teenager’s mental processes and judgment calls.

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The Teenage Brain

The human brain is a complex organ that never ceases to amaze researchers and experts. Only recently, within the last two decades, did scientists discover that our brains are still growing and making connections until around our 25th birthday. This development explains why teens and young twenty-somethings engage in behaviors that clearly seem questionable to our more mature brains.

When a child reaches adolescence, his or her body receives a rush of hormones. As a result their body begins a very visible physical transformation. However, deep inside another important transformation involving the teen brain is occurring. Right behind the forehead, the prefrontal cortex begins the complex job of connecting the brain pathways that a person will use for the rest of their life.

This process can lead teens to perceive threats, emotions, and reality differently than an adult. The underdeveloped brain lacks synapse connections that lead to lapses in risk assessment and questionable judgments, because parts of the brain aren’t cooperating or working as efficiently together as they will in adulthood.

Is This Typical Teen Behavior?

As children reach the teenage years, they often struggle with developing their own identity and self-concept. This process involves trial and error while they become individuals apart from their family. Many parents might be wondering if their teen’s behavior is normal or if they are symptoms that require more attention.

Here is a quick rundown of some common and worrisome behaviors:

Strange hairdos and interesting wardrobe changes. Changes in appearance signal a rite of passage for teens – a desire to experiment with identity and to differentiate themselves from parents. Parents should become worried when they see dramatic weight loss or gain, negative moods, self-harming behaviors, and dropping grades.

Arguments and disagreements with parents. A teen’s developing brain might find it difficult to read emotions like an adults. This, coupled with teens’ desire to develop, form, and state opinions, can easily lead to disagreements and clashes. It might not be polite or what parents want to hear, but this is how children create their self-identity. Luckily, the vast majority of teens out grow this disagreeable behavior prior to young adulthood. They also tend to reserve the worst of their rudeness for parents and provide a different personae to the public. Red flags are escalating arguments, violence, truancy, physical fighting, and run-ins with the law.

Swinging Moods. A teen’s body is at the mercy of hormones and emotions and the teen years are a high-stress time of life, so it is only to be expected that they display some moodiness and irritability. However, if a teen begins having trouble sleeping at night, displays high levels of anxiety, dropping grades, and radical personality changes it could signal developing mental health problems. If a child talks about suicide, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends taking it seriously.

Experimenting with substances. The teen brain is wired for risk taking. Risk taking provides young brains with a “feel-good rush.” At the same time adolescent brains have not yet developed a mature ability to regulate impulsiveness, preventing them from seeing the full range of consequences of their behavior. Consequently, peers can influence experimenting with alcohol or drugs. This is not unusual among the teen population and generally does not cause lasting harm in the long term. However, illegal underage drinking should be frowned upon and can have very negative effects. Parents need to be extremely concerned when they notice habitual use or if the teen’s drinking coincides with problems in the classroom, peers, or in the home. That could signify an addiction.

Increasing peer influences. Friends naturally have increasing influence on certain aspects of life for adolescents, though parents are still the most significant influence. This is part of the process of forming self-identity, self-reliance, and independence from parents. However, a sudden change in his or her group of friends or preferring to spend large amounts of time alone might be indicators of potential problems or mental health issues.


A Developing Brain’s Impact on Mental Health

As a child navigates the teen years and early twenties, the prefrontal cortex solidifies connections in the brain allowing for better communication and more mature decision-making. Understanding the biological components of a teen’s development can help parent’s survive the turbulent teenage years.

The white or blue dress debate is a great reminder of how a teen’s brain can alter their perception of the world. Remember that there are a variety of factors at play in regard to a teen’s mental health and brain development. It is vital to be aware of a teen’s behavior and notice drastic or extreme changes. Parents can stay tuned into their child’s life by being involved and offering guidance. Supporting teens involves both setting clear guidelines and avoiding harsh judgments.


About the Author

Author_Amy_2Amy Williams is a journalist and former social worker, specializing in teen behavioral health. She believes that, in our digital age, it’s time for parents and educators to make sure parents and students alike are educated about technology and social media use, hoping to inform others through her writing. She is the mother of two teenaged boys.