Adolescence: Myths & Misconceptions
Between the ages of 10 and 24, a person is officially in adolescence, according to the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs. This is a transitional period between puberty and adulthood, with the youth during this period growing physically, cognitively and psychosocially.
There are three stages of adolescence: early adolescence, middle adolescence and late adolescence/young adulthood. Early adolescence occurs between the ages of 10 and 14 when both sexes experience significant physical growth and increased sexual interest. They have limited capacity for abstract thought at this stage, but their intellectual interests will expand. Middle adolescence occurs between the ages of 15 and 17. Puberty is completed during this phase, and adolescents experience numerous social and emotional changes and develop an increased drive for independence. Late adolescence/young adulthood is the period between ages 18 and 24 when emotional stability and a firmer sense of identity are developed, and plans for the future made.
The science behind the adolescent brain
Adolescence is when young people start to develop computational and decision-making skills, though they often struggle with balancing rational thought and decisions with their emotions. This is especially true because the prefrontal cortex in the brain is still developing.
An adolescent is prone to intense emotions because since the prefrontal cortex is still developing, the adolescent's brain depends on the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than an adult's brain does. This section of the brain is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behavior.
During this time, the brain also creates more oxytocin receptors. Oxytocin is associated with social bonding and aids in recognizing and remembering social stimuli, so some researchers theorize it contributes to adolescents' sensitivity to the perceptions and opinions of others. This, in turn, contributes to increased risk-taking behavior, which often occurs in social groups rather than when alone.
On top of this, research shows adolescents' circadian rhythm peaks late in the day, resulting in a natural tendency to sleep later into the morning during these years. Combined with the fact the adolescent body optimally needs a minimum of 9 to 10 hours of sleep, early-morning wakeups for school or extracurriculars and late-night sessions of studying and homework can culminate in sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can lead to an increased risk of developing anxiety, mood swings and, potentially, depression.
A tremendous amount of chemical and physiological changes are happening during this period. With so many complicated transitions taking place, it's often easier to simplify all teenagers' experiences and behaviors with simple myths. However, armed with a deeper scientific understanding, you may find the "terrible teens" to be not so terrible.
Myth: Hormones make teenagers crazy
Reality: Hormonal activity does increase during adolescence, but this is a result of neurological and physiological growth and development. Sure, hormones do have an effect on a teen's behavior, but so much more is happening in their brain and body, it's impossible to isolate one aspect as solely responsible. In addition, it's important to note that although adolescent behavior may seem irrational to an adult, you should never undermine a teenager's sense of self and agency by demeaning their choices.
Myth: All teens are moody
Reality: Adolescents are prone to more intense emotions because they rely heavily on the section of the brain that houses the amygdala for their decision-making skills. This section of the brain controls emotions and impulses, so adolescents seem more emotional.
Myth: Teens like to push your buttons
Reality: The prefrontal cortex of the adolescent brain is still developing. This means their computational and decision-making skills are still a work in progress. Their need for independence will fluctuate as often as their emotions, resulting in sometimes contradictory behavior, which can be aggravating.
When dealing with adolescents, it is important to have an understanding of the physiology behind most of their behaviors. While not discounting the effect of their environment and society at large, the impact of their continuous neurological and physiological development provides a better explanation for their actions and behavior.