Teen Tantrums: the brain’s story

Born and bred a British, Shamima, 17, is all about creativity and self-expression. She wishes to pursue a career in Medicine and pursue her interests in poetry, fashion, writing and maybe in the distant future, property development.


We always speak of it being a ‘teen-thing’, the hormones acting up, being that time of the month and all. But do we really understand to what extend neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) and hormones (chemicals in the rest of the body) influence the behaviour and development of teenagers.

Popular belief is that hormone levels vary in a female’s body once every month. In actual fact this occurs on a week to week basis.

The result?

Highly spontaneous teen behaviour.

The hormones in question are primarily oestrogen and progesterone. Oestrogen is present in young females from birth at a capped level. These levels are roughly equal to those present in young boys. During puberty oestrogen and progesterone levels begin to rise and fall in alternating waves, peaking in one week, dwindling in another. It is these levels that predict how a teenager will behave and react to certain situations.

In The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine explains the precise role of the brain in the development and changes in teenagers. Having found The Female Brain extraordinarily eye opening, I have picked out 6 behaviours and summarised just how biology and chemicals play their part in teen tantrums. Hopefully this insight will help parents to best deal with and support their teens, and teenagers to better understand their rollercoaster emotions and urges.

6 Behaviours Controlled by Hormones and Neurotransmitters


1. Aggression:

We are all pretty familiar with the hormone, testosterone, and its effects on our male counterparts. As it so happens, females also possess testosterone; it is actually one of 3 main androgens in the female body. Androgens are the hormones that a responsible for triggering teenager’s uncontrollable aggression and their heated mean streak. During the points of the menstrual cycle where levels of androgen are at their peak, namely weeks 2 and 3, teens are at their least pleasant mood and have a higher tendency to react badly to stress. They feel less inclined to be around people and extend their usual charms. Other finely tuned female interpersonal skills tend to be lacking, also, empathy for example. Acne is a reliable indicator of escalating androgen levels to watch out for.


2. Depression:

Gloominess and moodiness in teen girls are easily dismissed for being either attention seeking behaviour or average teen attitude. However parents should be on the lookout for serious melancholy sneaking in. Teen girls are twice as likely to suffer from depression, and even more so if it runs in the family. More than a mere spell of bad mood, for teen’s depression can lead to a decline in school performance, sleeplessness, weight loss etc.


3. Lack of judgement

The prefrontal cortex is the fore most part of the brain, encased by your temple. It is this section of the brain that is the key to decision making, good judgement and control of emotions, qualities that teens could possess on a good day. Take a turbulent PMS day and small stressors can be received with grossly swelling overreaction, powered by strong impulses from the amygdale (part of the brain commonly associated with anger). The brain with fall deaf of the earnest cries of the prefrontal cortex, and your teen will be powered to make rash decisions to overcome these stressors (and compose the amygdale) as they see fit. Too often however, their course of action is a far cry from responsible; drugs, alcohol and controlling, or losing control of food may follow. While parents attempt to take their teen’s outbursts with a pinch of salt, these are suitable times for them to step in with their own sound judgement to make up for that which their teen is lacking.


4. Risk Taking Behaviour

During teenage-hood the prefrontal cortex is still producing more, new brain cells and establishing neural connections which are yet to be strengthened. This young, incomplete brain struggles to manage the huge emotional surges from the amygdale. The prefrontal cortex does not function properly, as it would do in an adult, to bestow the bearer with the control and rational that they require resulting in volatility in changes of mood. The rush of impulses from the amygdale demands action, and a malfunctioning prefrontal cortex cannot contain that. Teenagers are over keen to do things and rational mind may think twice before performing. Parents and teachers who jump in to prevent teens from taking risky steps are likely to be met with resentment.


5. Oversleeping:

It may surprise parents that even sleep is dictated by hormones in the body. The early birds of yesterday are slumbering so deep that they have no time for breakfast on school days and mornings are non-existent every other day. It is actually less to do with late night television and more to do with oestrogen. The high oestrogen levels cause sleep cells in 8 to 10 year olds to reset which means that they will turn in later and wake up later and that their duration of sleep is extended, a trend that becomes apparent in their teen years.


6. Patchy Relationships:

Friendships are everything in a teen’s life, obsessively so.  So you won’t be surprised to hear that that too, is biologically influenced. In the natural world, where, in an emergency situation, female primates have little advantage over their male fellows in terms of strength, fighting is not an option and running away leaving youngsters isn’t desirable either. Females develop bonds with other females, and in this situation, they will come together to help ward off the male, in other situations may give fore warnings of danger and reveal food sources. Scientists believe that this thinking is also hardwired into human female brains.

Girls go to great lengths to establish friendly ties, sharing clothes, secrets, helping each other and spending a lot of time talking to each other, on the internet, the phone, meeting up and so on. Having a large group of friends, boosts a teen girl’s self esteem and gives her a sense of security. Sharing worries and problems also help her too reduce stress levels, while giving her a surge of dopamine (motivation and pleasure chemical) and oxytocin (bonding chemical), lighting up the pleasure centre of her brain.

On the other hand, a fragmented relationship can have quite the opposite effect. Dopamine and oxytocin levels hit rock bottom, and there is a rise of the stress linked cortisol chemical. Cortisol causes the teen to experience huge levels of anxiety and fear. She cannot bear the thought of loneliness and being without the security of even a single friend. For a teen girl, this stress is one of the biggest stresses she will experience.


These are to name a few; teenagers have a whole spectrum of chemically influence emotions and behaviours.  However, that does not go to say that teens have no control over their conduct. Chemicals only increase the likelihood of a certain reaction.

Understanding that the reason behind your desire to scream and yell and storm off to do something highly unreasonable is fuelled not be your actually wanting to do it, but because your brain demands it, may help teens to be just that bit more reasonable in a brewing storm.

It may also help parents tip-toeing around volatile teenagers to predict the most turbulent times and help their teens to deal with these surges and to keep their head.

The Female Brain


Source and Further Reading:

Louann Brizendine, M.D. (2007). The Female Brain. London: The Random House Group. Chapter Two, Teen Girl Brain, p57-86.

An extraordinary book; I strongly recommend parents and teenagers read it cover to cover as I have found it to offer so much in the form of education and reassurance.

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