How To Deal With Teenage Behaviour Issues

Do your teens's actions confuse you? Do you feel like she doesn't want to spend as much time with you anymore? Well, you are not alone! Let's take a look inside the teen brain together.

By Dr Prithika Chary  • 14 min read

How To Deal With Teenage Behaviour Issues

The onset of puberty marks the occurrence of a diverse set of physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioural and social changes. Adolescence also brings up several new concerns for the parents about their teens – their propensity for risk-taking, accidents, sensation-seeking, depression and substance use

Teen behaviour is confusing and irritating, often aggressive and sometimes terrifying for those around them. Why they take stupid risks, why they reject parental wisdom and guidance in favour of advice from friends and why they seem hell-bent on destroying their lives, is often very difficult to fathom for adults. 

Science may have some answers. The fact is that teen brains are actually ‘tween’ brains transitioning between quick learning children’s brains and the wiser, mature brains of an adult. 

Teens have the easier-than-adult learning abilities but lack the judgement and discernment of the mature adult brain. Neuroimaging studies and other scientific experiments of brain function have demonstrated that the teenage brain function is uniquely different from children and older senescent brains. It is only in the past 10 years that these research findings have emerged. The October 2011 issue of National Geographic which carries a cover story on the subject says: 

“The first full series of scans of the developing adolescent brain—a National Institutes of Health (NIH) project that studied over a hundred young people as they grew up during the 1990s— showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years.” 

The brain completes 90% of its growth by the age of six years, but during adolescence, it undergoes extensive remodelling and stabilization to enable it to mature into an adult brain.

How messages get transmitted 

The brain consists of nerve cells or neurons that transmit messages through an electro-chemical process. The neurons have extensions called dendrites and axons. The dendrites are multiple branching processes which convey or bring information to the cell nucleus, while axons are single long processes covered with a fatty sheath that carry information away from the cell body. The junction or the meeting point between the axon and the dendrite of other neurons is called the Synapse.

Brain changes during adolescence 

  1. There is an increase in the number of connections between the brain cells, and newer pathways are formed. The dendrites get denser, and the synapses become stronger and more numerous. Also, the junctional tissue between the two cerebral hemispheres (the corpus callossum) gradually thickens. 
  2. The pathways get stabilized. The axons undergo a process called myelination, where they are wrapped with a fatty insulation called myelin. This speeds up the transmission of impulses several fold. The pathways thus become more ‘set’, and easy to access with minimum effort. 

All these changes are influenced both by internal bodily changes (nature) and external environmental influences (nurture). Pathways are well-established to literally last a lifetime and those synapses or nerve cells which are idle or have no role to play, undergo self-destruction (apoptosis) and disappear. This process is called synaptic pruning. 

There is no place for redundancy in nature. What remains is the very efficient, but thinner grey matter with which we do a lot of our complicated functions - a highly functional brain. 

This process was earlier believed to be complete during a child’s life in elementary school. Modern neuroimaging studies have revealed that the process continues through adolescence. 

In addition, the direction and location of the maturation has also come to be known. Essential functions like vision, hearing, motor skills, sensory awareness which is protective in nature, lie in the rear part of the brain and towards the central portion. It appears that these mature earlier. 

Myelination proceeds from back to front, the frontal lobes being the last to complete maturation. The frontal and prefrontal lobes control the advanced brain functions including insight, judgement, impulse control, planning, strategising, cognitive flexibility and problem-solving. 

That is, the frontal lobes perform what are known as executive functions: like sifting and evaluating various options; possible directions of response; and the impulse to set into motion a plan of action. 

The hippocampus, which is the seat of memory, is a structure that connects the emotional brain with the ‘executive’ brain. This connection gradually grows stronger during the adolescent phase, and particularly so with the frontal lobes. This results in a better integration of memory and experience into our decisions, and enables us to weigh a larger range of variables before taking action. 

David Dobbs, a science journalist, in the aforementioned National Geographic article states “When this development proceeds normally, we get better at balancing impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules, ethics, and even altruism, generating behaviour that is more complex and, sometimes at least, more sensible.

But at times, and especially at first, the brain does this work clumsily. It's hard to get all those new cogs to mesh.” Likewise, Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry, through neuroimaging studies showed that “Compared with adults, teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focused—areas the adults seemed to bring online automatically. This allowed the adults to use a variety of brain resources and better resist temptation, while the teens used those areas less often and more readily gave in to distraction.” She also showed that ‘when offered a reward their performance improved’. 

Given this information, teenage behaviour moves from a vexing inconsistency of haste, impulsiveness, recklessness and selfishness, to a highly adaptive work in progress. They ultimately learn to detect and discern from the various internal and external cues, to correctly judge situations, to act with caution, and thus move on to a more mature behaviour. 

If we are confused by their behaviour, we need to realise that they are themselves confused by the various remodelling processes going on in their brains. 

Another interesting physiological change is the increased sensitivity of the brain to the neurotransmitter Dopamine during the teen years. Dopamine primes and fires reward circuits. It enhances learning and our ability to make decisions. This might explain the teens’ quickness of learning and eager receptivity to rewards and perhaps even their melodramatic response to defeat. 

Increased levels of Oxytocin, a neural hormone involved in social bonding and social interactions, helps explain yet another trait that marks adolescence. Teens prefer the company of those their own age more than ever before or after. 

At one level, this passion for same-age peers merely expresses itself in the social realm, in the teen's general attraction to novelty: Teens offer teens far more novelty than the family does. At a second level, the effort that happens to get peer recognition and acceptance, is actually an ‘investment for the future’ which is what growing up is all about. The fear however for adults is that teens could offer each other ‘wrong’ advice as their judgement and evaluation of risk is not adequately developed. 

Knowing thus, we should empathize, guide and mould teen behaviour to face the challenges of a complicated world outside the home. Adolescence is a unique, highly functional period of development. 

This article has attempted to bring complex brain facts into simple understandable terms as I feel this knowledge is of no use if we cannot apply it on a day to day basis. 

It is our duty as adults to guide our young folk along the path of personal growth and fulfilment in a wise and caring manner. We have to appreciate the uniqueness and plasticity of the adolescent brain so that this window of opportunity is not wasted. We have to understand that the adolescent is having a ‘hard time’ just going through these psychological and physical changes; that he needs love, tolerance, and a firm but a helpful hand to cope with this phase of life.

Some teenage behaviours and how to deal with them

Thrill seeking

Sensation seeking is actually a yearning for learning something new. But teenagers take risks to do it, because they do not have the integration from past experience, nor are their inhibitory judgement pathways fully myelinated. Therefore, we should not assume that all such behaviour is impulsive and uncontrolled; instead we could bring in frequent novelty into our interactions with teens and get them to agree to some adult supervision on new ‘thrilling’ experiences.

Risk taking 

Teenagers are more prone to die from various types of accidents. They are easily persuaded into risky habits like alcohol, smoking, abusive drug taking, etc. Adults feel that they are just being stupid or willful. But Science shows that teenagers actually ‘overestimate risk’. Their brains are capable of evaluating risk and knowing its consequences, it is just that they interpret risk versus reward differently and hence take more chances. 

During this adaptive period, risk-taking actually has some advantages, because the more exploratory one is, the more he will learn and the better he is likely to be in adulthood. Risk-taking in the adolescent actually arises from a higher consideration for reward. Measured risk challenges with attractive social rewards could be a way to get around this, but parents and teachers need to use their creativity on this one.

Peer pressure 

The apparent lack of respect and regard to the older generation (usually parents and teachers, sometimes grandparents) and the unconditional obsession with peer blending, guidance and advice is a trait of teenage behaviour which is also confusing to deal with. It is important to realise that it is more a matter of peer acceptance than a defiance of adult guidance. As mentioned earlier, teen to teen interactions are more interesting, offer more novelty, build social ties, and are often what is useful in our lives in future interactions. 

Dealing with this requires adults to ‘get down’ to the teen and befriend them rather than take the ‘wiser than thou’ attitude of strict discipline and punishment. This does not mean condoning offensive or irrational behaviour.

Contradictory behaviour

Teen behaviour is all about contradictions. The following excerpt from the National Geographic article, as stated by Dobbs, sums it up: 

“These studies help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday. Along with lacking experience generally, they're still learning to use their brain's new networks. Stress, fatigue, or challenges can cause a misfire. Abigail Baird, a Vassar psychologist who studies teens, calls this ‘neural gawkiness’ – an equivalent to the physical awkwardness teens sometimes display while mastering their growing bodies.” 

This manifests as indecisiveness, extremes of behaviour, seeming defiance as it challenges adult concepts of behaviour and honestly makes it ‘really hard’ to be an adolescent.

Spending time with the teenager, objectively analysing the situation without blame and accusation is one way to deal with this. Instead of ‘I told you so’ or ‘when will you ever get things right’ ask the young person gently: 

“Why did you do this? Did you realise the risks involved to yourself by doing this ? I care for you and worry about your welfare and want you to be happy – how can I help you?"

Dr Prithika Chary is a neurologist and neurosurgeon from Chennai.

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