There is so much new and exciting research in the literature reminding us that the developing brain of an adolescent is truly different from that of a young child or an adult. The adolescent brain is wired for aggression, pleasure seeking, impulsivity, and risk taking. Interestingly, this can either be a recipe for disaster or actually allow adolescents to fearlessly take on new challenges and be highly creative. The adolescent brain wants to rebel and conform at the same time! If you live with an adolescent you already know that their brains respond to emotionally loaded imagery and situations with an intensity that is far greater than that of young children or adults. When appropriately channeled, this enables them to become passionate about justice and personal causes, and can evoke deep feelings of empathy and compassion for others. And yes, it also means that “looking at them the wrong” way can lead to instant meltdown.
Adolescents can be difficult to reason with because they often see the world through a black/white lens and are incapable of full abstract thinking until their mid-20’s. They often want to analyze and attach deep meaning to things, yet ironically, the parts of the brain responsible for cause and effect thinking are not yet fully wired. The adolescent brain often perceives that others “don’t get them,” believing that you’ve only really heard them when you agree with them. This still developing brain tends to over-generalize, can downplay important experiences and exaggerate little things, and buys into the idea that “if you feel it, it must be true.” Since the primary developmental task of adolescence is forging an identity, teens are, by definition, very focused on self. In some ways, this is actually necessary, and should be normalized for worried parents who fear that their teenager will always be “selfish.” In truth, the adolescent brain is a remarkable work in progress. We do need to remember that it is a “different brain” and not have the expectation that it will process and respond to the world in the same ways that our adult brains do.
How do you see the clinical treatment of adolescents as different from that of adults?