AdolescentsThere 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?

4 thoughts on "The Adolescent Brain: A work in progress"

  1. Also and I have specialized for the last 25 years in somatic stress (sensory overload also known as sensory processing disorders) affecting learning, working , attention/focus, behavior, anxiety and stress tolerance, trauma, and learning challenges. Using simple (yet complex since training is required to understand the neurobiology and proper and accurate assessment and implementation) that require very little time, relatively easy to carry over, research based and are cost affective. A multidisciplinary approach seems to provide the best results with collaboration to bring the pieces of the puzzle together. Irlen Syndrome, or visual sensory processing overload, affects the mind, body, sensory systems, and energetic states of children and can carry over a lifetime into adulthood. When addressed other therapies can work more effectively since a major stressor is minimized or eliminated via proper diagnosis and intervention. Takes 1-2 session and specific accommodations so every therapist should know how to find those who would benefit and take care of this underlying issues as a baseline for creating more effective intervention strategies and progress. The neurobiology of stress (and how stressors affect function and emotional well being, and even the immune system) can be tracked via symptom checklists, SPECT brain scans and EEGs, goal setting and progress, standardized testing, and medical testing as well. There have been successful studies done on this issue in prison schools, vocational rehabilitation, and wounded warrior programs (Marines and Navy) over the last 30 years. We are all working on pieces of the human puzzle and when we work together with a client based service delivery model , we all benefit and can save the client time, $$$ and the agony of living with trauma and disability.

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Shoshana, you offer a good reminder that human beings are made up of so many facets, and we do have an ethical and clinical responsibility to assess thoroughly, and understand the impact that biology and neurobiology has on our clients’ symptoms and struggles. Thank you for the feedback!

  2. Vivian says:

    Thanks for the wonderfully written blog post! I work with teens and find that their ego-centric nature needs to find an alliance with the therapist. They often are at odds with their parents or some aspect (or many aspects!) of their world. They really do need to know someone understands how they think and feel – once they come to me they often feel alone in some way. I also have to be very careful with confrontation – as therapists we have to be careful anyway – but with teens, I need to meet them where they are. I find they like to explain themselves, and it is a good exercise to ask them questions about their experience. It is good for them to hear their own voice, and they can then question themselves as to the need for change, or I may find an opening to ask if their thinking is working for them. They are very sensitive to feeling judged or someone telling them what to do, so it can be a sensitive issue. I do enjoy the process of a young mind working through the dilemmas of becoming an adult. It isn’t easy. This is good food for thought! Thanks again, Vivian

    1. lisaferentz says:

      Vivian, you clearly know what you are doing when it comes to working with teenagers! I love the inherent respect, non-judgmental patience, and compassion that your response exudes. Your clients are blessed to have your guidance!

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