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Children's Health

Blame the Brain for Typical Teenage Behavior

Ask any parent: A teen's behavior can be attributed to anything, everything or nothing. But recent research on brain development and activity offers some answers.

Even though most brain development -- 90 to 95 percent -- occurs during the first six years of life, there is an additional brain growth spurt around ages 10 to 12. After that, up to age 20, researchers say, there is additional pruning, organizing and other changes in the brain. During this developmental period, brain activity often manifests itself in:

Researchers at the National Institutes of Mental Health, Harvard University, and other institutions have used brain imaging techniques to examine both brain activity and development in adolescents and teens. It appears that the brain's frontal lobe, where people process emotions, continues to develop into the early 20s and is normally the "first responder" in adult decision-making and judgment calls.

Teenagers, on the other hand, tend to rely more on a part of the brain called the "amygdala," part of the limbic system that is associated with instinctive gut reactions. This includes what is known as the "fight or flight" response. Because of that, teenagers are more likely to react quickly and misinterpret facial expressions of emotion -- for example, they could possibly see anger in another person when, in actuality, there is none. You might also see the amygdala at work in your teen's:

As teens become young adults, activity shifts from the amygdala to the frontal lobe, allowing more control over emotions and impulses.

For parents, simply knowing that normal brain development is a likely cause of their teens' seemingly irrational behavior can be a relief. But you can do things to help smooth the transition to adulthood. For example:

This article originally appeared in Family Fundamentals (01/18/08), a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2008.

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Last Reviewed: Feb 26, 2008

Melinda Hill, MS
County Extension Director & Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Science
College of Food, Agricultural, & Environmental Science
The Ohio State University