The Teen Brain as a Work in Progress: Implications for Pediatric Nurses

Judith W. Herrman


Pediatr Nurs. 2005;31(2):144-148. 

In This Article

The Teen Brain: Thrills, Peers, and Stress

The sensation seeking almost implicit of the teen years is essentially related to the physiological processes described thus far. Thought to be an evolutionary skill, the sensation seeking of adolescence may be rooted in the need to encourage independence from parents in order to increase social competence and to prevent inbreeding (Spear, 2002). Increased dopamine levels and decreased serotonin may lead to a desire for novel, risky, and intense stimuli, levels not often noted in the adult population (Wallis, 2004, p. 61). Especially problematic of this stage of adolescent development is the domination of this sensation seeking, with little commensurate cognitive controls to balance these urges. Essentially, teens deal with the constant temptation of sensation seeking, yet lack the cognitive controls needed to harness these sensations. As noted by Wallis (2004), teens are like high-powered cars without skilled drivers.

The consequences of such sensation-seeking behaviors may exemplify themselves as many of the problems of youth, including reckless behavior, fighting, vandalism, substance abuse, stealing, and trespassing. These behaviors have come to be expected as typical in teens. It is when these behaviors prevail over other activities, are carried out frequently, or are conducted to a significant degree that teens' actions may come into serious question. Performance of these behaviors, though considered aberrant in relation to adult codes of conduct, has been associated with this evolutionary sensation seeking. Authors have correlated the notion of appropriate experimentation with this sensation-seeking, in which a normative level of "dabbling" with drugs or other risky behaviors is a developmental task of the teen years (Spear, 2002, p. 112).

The emphasis on social investigation and the focus upon peers during the teen years may also have a physiological basis (Spear, 2000). Those who work with teens are aware of the issues revolving around the importance of peer influences, the priority friends play in the teen's life, and the impact peers may have on behavior. Issues such as peer pressure, parental discord over peer influences, and testing behaviors when teens compare themselves to their friends may be manifest in the adolescent period. To substantiate the emphasis on peer groups, Steinberg (2002) conducted a study of teens and adults, with and without peers watching, who were simulating driving and confronted with the stimulus of a stop light turning yellow. The researcher found that teens and adults made safe choices when alone. Teens in the company of peers were significantly more likely to engage in risky behavior. Steinberg stated, "We've shown that age differences in decision-making and judgment may appear under conditions that are emotionally arousing or have high social impact" (Wallis, 2004, p. 62)

Teen responses to stress may also be impacted by changes in the physiological make-up of the brain. Researchers documented that teens experience a greater level of disruption in reaction to stressful stimuli (Spear, 2000). As such, adolescents responded to stress with larger vital sign changes and with more substantial release of hormones than adults. Psychologists believe that these physiological differences in stress responses may indicate that, for teens, external stimuli may result in more significant stress placed on their bodies and may require a more lengthy recovery time in order to renew themselves after a stressful event (Spear, 2000).

The frontal area of the brain again comes into play when viewing the adolescent tendency, or lack thereof, to seek rewards and avoid stress. The motivation to weigh costs and benefits of actions, dictated by the nucleus accumbens of the frontal cortex, is less developed in the teen years (Wallis, 2004). This yields a mindset that thrives on immediate relevant feedback. Youth may lack the cognitive power to seek delayed gratification or to predict far-reaching consequences in their motivation to act. Young people seek out opportunities that lend themselves to high excitement levels or low effort factors in order to determine the need to act (Wallis, 2004). As noted by Wallis (2004), this trait may offer this advice for those who counsel youth "To persuade a teen to quit drinking, for example... stress something immediate and tangible - the danger of getting kicked off the football team, say - rather than a future on skid row" (p. 62). Herrman (2004) noted that adolescent mothers did not engage in a conscious decision-making process prior to unprotected sexual activity, potentially related to teen physiological brain development.


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