Who understands teenagers?

When adolescence arrives, the tasks that are faced are different: managing emotions, assuming a certain independence from parents, advancing in decision-making...

OLD CARMEN Full Professor of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology. Researcher at the Laboratory of Studies on Coexistence and Prevention of Violence (LAECOVI), University of Córdoba NOEMI TOLEDANO FERNANDEZ Phd in Applied Psychology, University of Córdoba

To think of adolescence is to think of problems such as alcohol, bad moods, abuse of new technologies and social networks, first sexual relations, drugs, unwanted pregnancies, fights... It is to think of a complicated stage that adults hardly remember and rarely understand.

Being a teenager is a challenge, as is being a baby who must learn to walk, talk or move independently. However, when adolescence arrives, the tasks that are faced are different: managing emotions, assuming a certain independence from parents, advancing in decision-making... During these years, boys and girls will mature and face a wide range of opportunities of learning that will make them experiment, take risks, make mistakes and, finally, become adults.

Being adults in contact with adolescents is also a challenge. Understanding how they see the world, why they do what they do, or what drives them to behave in a certain way is an important exercise in putting yourself in their shoes. In addition to understanding the keys to development that lie behind such complex challenges as defining personal and sexual identity, learning to be part of a group of equals that will help them build their social identity, or emotionally detaching themselves from their fathers and mothers to let be the friends who cover needs such as the search for support or intimacy.

pursuit of pleasure

Scientific advances in neuroscience help to understand how adolescents carry out the decision-making process. Perhaps the most significant result is that they do so with a brain that is still developing, that is, one that has not fully acquired all its skills. And that can lead them to make mistakes.

During adolescence, many situations are faced that require making decisions: try something new, approach another person who is attractive to us or break a rule established by the family. In all these decisions, two areas of the brain that are still developing and at very different times come into play.

On the one hand, the mesolimbic system, responsible among other things for regulating the reward system. This system reinforces the repetition of behaviors that cause pleasure –such as going to parties with friends with whom you have a good time–, or survival behaviors –such as drinking water from time to time or on very hot days–. Activation of the mesolimbic system is mediated in part by hormone production. That is why during adolescence its activation is very high.

lack of self-control

On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex intervenes, in charge of executive functions, that is, of the regulation of impulses and self-control. One of its functions is to assess the consequences of a behavior. The prefrontal cortex, however, is in full development during the adolescent years, which should be understood as a maturational deficit of the brain regions that are responsible for behavioral control.

This imbalance, which the scientific literature has called the Dual Systems Model, is key to understanding why adolescents sometimes make the decisions they do. A highly activated pleasure-seeking system is combined in its head with a still-developing conscious behavioral regulation system.

In short, the perfect combination for boys and girls to assume, in these years, behaviors that adults consider risky.

feel part of a group

Not only individual development is important to understand the reason for some adolescent behaviors. The development of the social world is also key at this stage of development.

In these years, peers become a fundamental context for socialization and learning. It is not that boys and girls detach themselves from the family context, it is that they expand their world of relationships and incorporate friends into their social circle for specific functions such as the search for trust, support and security.

In this way, adapting and adjusting one's own behavior to form part and feel integrated in that group becomes a priority. Group norms will largely regulate individual behavior. What others see as positive and is accepted by the group, will be desired and repeated. What they censor or see as negative will be repressed.

In this way, adolescents will try to adjust to what they suppose the group expects of them while facing elements such as group pressure – that is, the influence that the social group is capable of exerting on a person – or the imaginary audience, characteristic of adolescent cognitive development that makes them think that others are always aware of them, valuing and judging their actions.

Adult's role

Adolescent development is a complex process with very particular characteristics. They cannot yet be considered as adults, but childish behaviors have also been far away. Behaviors that involve taking certain risks have been, and continue to be, characteristic features of adolescence.

However, it does not have to become something tormenting, neither for them nor for their reference adults, if you understand what leads them to act that way. Managing the situation is made even easier if they are given the tools and support they need to manage these behaviors successfully.

The scientific literature identifies some keys in this regard:

1. Making mistakes and taking certain risks is a proper adolescent process: the important thing is that they become a learning tool.

2. The very brain development of these ages leads to the pleasure of experiencing certain risky behaviors preventing an accurate assessment of their consequences. It is necessary to explain, carefully and from understanding, what those consequences are.

3. The adolescent needs to feel free to experiment and make mistakes, but also to know the limits and consequences. Although they want to be independent, they still need to feel cared for by the adult.

The adolescent perspective is very different from the adult perspective. Understanding their point of view and valuing it as such is essential. They need to feel heard and, above all, understood by their circle of reference.

This article has been published in '
The Conversation'.