Why being a Teenager is Filled with Challenges

The teen years are transitional and fraught with emotional, mental and physical demands.  Every age has its advantages and disadvantages but few are more challenging than those bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood.  This is not new. References from frustrated adults regarding teenagers go back beyond the time of the Roman Empire. 

At least part of the reason is that while the brain is ninety percent grown by about age six (skull thickening accounts for most head growth beyond that) it undergoes a type of rewiring between the ages of twelve and twenty five.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted an imaging study of over one hundred young people’s brains as they went through their teen years. The maturing process of the brain, once thought to be complete by about age seven, actually continues into adulthood.

The maturing process begins at the back of the brain near the brain stem controlling much of the basic functions (such as sight and fundamental processing) and slowly proceeds to the front of the brain which controls the more cognitive, deep thought processing. The long nerve fibers (axons) which are used by neurons to send signals between them become insulated by myelin (white matter). This will, over time, increase the speed of transmission over one hundred times. As this is going on the branchlike extensions (dendrites) through which neurons receive signals from axons become thinner and the chemical junctions (synapses) through which axons and dendrites communicate begin to change. The most used synapses become thicker and richer while the least used begin to wither. The overall process (synaptic pruning) makes the brain’s cortex where much of the brain’s complex thinking is processed become thinner and more efficient.

The process extends beyond the above with stronger links developing between the hippocampus (where memory is stored) and the frontal lobes which controls decision making and agenda setting. The corpus callosum, the connection between the right and left hemisphere gradually thickens. The result of the above is a brain which processes information quicker and is capable of balancing impulsive desires with other factors such as memory and self agenda.

The growing brain works sluggishly at first and it takes practice to refine its growing capabilities. The teenager is still learning to use his new skills which accounts for some of the reckless and impulsive behavior for which the age group is so known. The study also showed that with practice and motivation young people became better at thinking through problems and controlling their behavior..

Besides his or her brain growing up, the teen is experiencing changes in hormonal levels. Added to this are the social pressures commonly associated with these years.

There is desire to fly the nest while still needing and secretly wanting the support and guidance of adults. The young person is motivated by parents and educational professionals to concentrate on studies so that they can be accepted into college. There are applications to be filled out for universities and possibly for grants and scholarships.

They are expected to become more responsible and if possible hold down a first job. Money management becomes a reality rather than a subject reserved for the adults. Life begins to intrude upon their childhood.

Added to these demands is peer pressure. The desire to fit in and be one of the gang is very real for teens. It’s awful to be considered an outsider in high school. Depending on the individuals involved and the circumstances there can be substantial psychological pressure to engage in activities from sex to substance abuse to ditching classes. Young people often stray, fortunately most not too seriously, from the chosen path because their basic impulse to be thought of as cool in their social group outweighs rational thought. 

Being a teenager is difficult due in a large part to the young person learning to use a brain with growing strength and potential. At the same time they are bombarded not only by hormones but social and economic demands. They are forced to choose between impulsive, desire and rational thinking. It can be harrowing time but also one filled with accomplishment, growth and simply enjoying the last years of childhood.