The Science of Teens: What Parents Need to Know

I speak a lot about the science of teens and what the research says about why teens behave the way they do. Here my top five brain notes that all parents should know…and keep in mind with a teen in the home.

1. Moods:

In research done by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson, adolescents were given beepers to record their moods and activities for a week. The subjects were paged at random times and asked to write down how they were feeling and what they were doing. This, no surprise here, showed moods fluctuating rapidly from negative to positive several times each day, especially for teen girls.

2. Boy Outlook vs Girl Outlook

In her book The Female Brain, Brizendine points to major girl boy differences as a result of hormones. Here are the documented differences: (If you are like me, it was nice to see that some of the differences below are actually common, and not just with teens I work with).

  • Girls tend to seek intimacy in their relationships and love chatting with peers. They avoid conflict at all costs. However, boys tend towards competition.
  • Interestingly, by the time boys reach kindergarten, they often play exclusively with each other and form dominance hierarchies based on who is the most athletic. Girls’ games, like house and hopscotch, tend to be more cooperative. Brizendine says these differences are “pivotal brain difference between males and females” and “during the teen years the flood of estrogen in girls’ brains will activate oxytocinflirting and socializing.”

3. TV and Reality

Many teens spend their time daydreaming about fantasies based on what they see on TV and movies (I certainly did…perhaps still do to some extent). According to the study: “Occupational portrayals on television: Children’s role schemata, career aspirations, and perceptions of reality,” researchers found that children often cannot distinguish between real life and TV fantasies. This is one of the reasons why many teens develop infatuations with celebrities and are addicted to shows that they think should portray real life.

4. Processing Stress

According to Margot Sunderland, the brain’s stress response system needs to be developed in the amygdala. People who have not established stress response systems in their brains, can suffer all kinds of problems: Depression, persistent states of anxiety, phobias and obsessions, physical symptoms and ailments, being cut off emotionally, lethargy, lack of excitement and lack of spontaneity. Many teens are not taught how to respond to stress, and therefore are actually lacking the proper brain pathways to deal with anxiety in healthy ways. When teens feel overwhelmed, it is often because their brain can literally not handle the inputs.

5. Social Rejection Is Painful

Two researchers at UCLA actually discovered that social rejection actually registers as bodily injury or pain in the brain! There might not be that big of a difference between a punch and a catcall. This helps adults understand why teens can be so upset and swept up by what happens with their peers.

6. The Science of Teen Depression

I was lucky enough to do an interview with Dr. Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D.  He is a clinical psychologist, author, and internationally known expert in the areas of treating depression, strategic short term psychotherapy, and clinical applications of hypnosis. He routinely teaches by invitation to professional audiences all over the world. In this interview we talk about his books and research with teens and depression and young people and depression.

7.The Science of Teen Risk-Taking

In this article from Scientific American, research is presented that shows, yes, indeed teens do have a brain wired for greater risk-taking. This is important for parents to know when talking to their teens about dangerous behavior.

8. The Science of Teen Sleep

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According to the national sleep foundation, teens do need more sleep than adults. This explains why teens have so much trouble getting up in the morning. It is important to understand this research and balance it with appropriate bedtimes, too much caffeine and stress.

9. The Science of Teen Sex

In this Pew Study, researchers found that teens have a much more liberal view of sex than previous generations. They also tie sexually active teens to other risky behaviors. A September 2009 study in the Sexuality Research and Social Policy Journal reported that most abstinence programs fail to delay sexual initiation, while more comprehensive programs show a positive impact, including postponing sexual activity and increasing contraceptive use. Complementing these findings is a January 2007 study published in the American Journal of Public Health which concluded that declining teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. were primarily attributable to improved contraception (and not to abstinence-only education).

10.The Science of Teen Cell Phone Use

This study looked at addictive, problematic use of cell phones and found a link between low self-esteem and problem cell phone use. It measured the link between cell phones and mental health and found that teens who used cell phones the most were more likely to be anxious and depressed.

I will continue to post more science of teen explanations and behaviors because I think it helps us understand why teens and parents get into certain cycles.

This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.

Citations:

Brizendine, Louann. The Female Brain. New York: Morgan Road, 2006. Print.

Sunderland, Margot. Science of Parenting: Practical Guidance on Sleep, Crying, Play, and Building Emotional Well-being for Life. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2006.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Reed Larson. Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years. New York: Basic, 1984. Print.

Fitch, Marguerite. “Occupational portrayals on television: Children’s role schemata, career aspirations, and perceptions of reality.” (1995). http://www.cmch.tv/SearchDetail2.aspx?rtrn=advnce&cid=1807.

Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman, “Why Rejection Hurts: A Common Neural Alarm System for Phsycial and Social Pain,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 7 (2004): 294-300.

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  • Bob Collier

    “In research done by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson, adolescents were given beepers to record their moods and activities for a week. The subjects were paged at random times and asked to write down how they were feeling and what they were doing. This, no surprise here, showed moods fluctuating rapidly from negative to positive several times each day, especially for teen girls.”

    Just wondering. If the moods were recorded at random times and, presumably, this means on a number of separate occasions, how did the researchers reach a conclusion that they were “fluctuating rapidly”? They surely would have needed to track moods over a *continuous* period of time to reach that conclusion.

  • sandra

    These studies need to be taken more seriously, for as we can see and hear that the mental health of all is changing for the worst.It is a fact that if the structure of the home and behavior is not looked at more closely,we will have a bigger problem, and that is waiting until it’s too late to help those that are having a problem coping with life in general, due to depression or mental illness.