School & District Management

Brain Research Invoked to Explain Teens’ Behavior

By Andrew Trotter — January 11, 2005 4 min read
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Most educators and parents know, without the aid of science, how volatile teenagers can be: placid one moment, a stick of dynamite the next. But a recent book by a psychologist—and former high school teacher and school counselor—takes the conclusions from scientific studies of the adolescent brain and turns them into practical advice.

David Walsh, the author of WHY Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, said he began reading in the mid-1990s about studies of the brains of teenagers based on scans with magnetic resonance imaging.

“It started to make so much sense in terms of so many things I’ve learned from a psychological point of view,” said Mr. Walsh, who is the founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis that examines the impact of electronic media on families.

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Shared Family Meals Linked to Learning

Pioneering research on normal adolescents, led by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, has proved that the adolescent brain is not a finished product, but a work in progress, according to Mr. Walsh. That is contrary to the conventional wisdom that the crucial connections between neurons, or brain cells, are forged in early childhood, and that hormones are the root cause of teenage volatility.

‘Power Struggles’

Dynamic changes take place in the brain at roughly the time of puberty, Mr. Walsh says, drawing particular attention to the prefrontal cortex, just behind the bone of the forehead.

The prefrontal cortex is “so key to understanding adolescents,” he writes in his book. “It plays the role of the brain’s executive or CEO and is responsible for planning ahead, considering consequences, and managing emotional impulses. It is also called the brain’s conscience.”

David Walsh, the author of Why Do They Act That Way: A Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, suggests that brain research based on magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, helps explain teenagers' volatile and unpredictable behaviors. Other experts, however, say Mr. Walsh is taking intellectual leaps that are not yet fully confirmed by neuroscience.

As the brain forges new circuits involving the prefrontal cortex and lets other circuits “wither and die,” many adolescents show dramatic changes in personality, notably in their impulse control, he suggests.

“An adult prefrontal cortex would say, ‘I’d better watch what I say,’ but an adolescent’s [prefrontal cortex] can short-circuit and he or she may mouth off, sometimes leading to unpleasant consequences,” he writes in the book, which was published in 2004 by the Free Press, based in New York City.

Such changes, at their worst, can create crises in families and discipline problems in schools.

“The fact is that the teenage brain is built for power struggles,” Mr. Walsh said in an interview. “So what you don’t want to do is get into power struggles, but you don’t want to be a doormat either.”

Although Mr. Walsh cites the work of some of the nation’s most eminent brain researchers, some researchers question the validity of turning brain research into practical lessons in handling teenage behavior.

Researchers React

“Advice to parents and educators at the present time should really not be based on findings in neuroscience—we’re not ready for that yet,” said Dr. Daniel S. Pine, a neuroscientist in the mood- and anxiety-disorders program at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.

“The relationship between behavioral changes in adolescents and changes in brain structure and function is highly complex,” Dr. Pine said. “We have too limited an understanding about the relationship between changes in behavior and changes in brain structure and function to draw conclusions about how those are related.”

As one gauge of the limits of the research, Dr. Pine notes that even today, brain conditions such as bipolar disorder are still diagnosed using checklists of behaviors, not MRI brain scans.

Mr. Walsh conceded that he is pushing beyond the research. But he believes he is consistent with it, not “speculative.”

Dr. Ronald E. Dahl, a pediatrician in the department of psychiatry at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh, generally agrees with Dr. Pine that it’s too early to cite science as the source of advice for educators and parents because so many factors influence adolescents’ emotions.

Regulating Emotions

But Dr. Dahl said the research supports the conclusion that educators and parents need to monitor teenagers’ behavior. “It’s a fine line,” he said. “Kids need to have freedom to develop self-regulatory skills, but they also need a lot of monitoring to keep them safe while they’re experimenting with their self-regulation.”

He pointed out that the refinement of the self-regulation process can have far-reaching effects for teenagers. For example, he said, the development of teenagers’ “circadian system”—the biological clock in the brain that influences sleep, body temperature, and hormones—gives them a “slight tendency to be more owl-like.”

That tendency does not by itself make teenagers stay up later, he said. But throw in other factors—such as teenagers’ elevated appetites, their greater freedom in choosing their own bedtimes, and a cultural tendency to stay up later—and the result may be students who are especially grumpy or temperamental in classes.

“With modern forms of entertainment exciting them, and exciting things to do [later at night], it spirals,” Dr. Dahl said. “But only a tiny amount of this is really biological.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Brain Research Invoked to Explain Teens’ Behavior

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