Wellbeing News

Adolescence and the Myth of Impulsivity

It has long been believed that adolescence is a period of increased impulsivity; that as teenagers, we are less able to control our actions. This is somewhat true, but probably needs to be looked at in a different way.

The adolescent brain is not oblivious to the possible negative consequences of actions. It is, however, much more focused on the possible pros that may arise from an action. This emphasis on the positive shifts the brain’s structure and function during adolescence.

Without getting too technical, the adolescent brain experiences an increase in the neurotransmitters using dopamine. This activity causes adolescents to gravitate towards thrilling experiences and sensations. This is also thought to be the reason teenagers will complain of being bored unless they are doing something engaging or novel.

This increased activity and the drive for reward affects the brain in three main ways:

  1. Increased impulsivity – behaviour occurs without thoughtful reflection.
  2. An increased susceptibility to addiction – all addictive behaviours and substances lead to increased levels of dopamine. When we stop the behaviour, dopamine levels plummet and we are driven to use more of the substance or behaviour.
  3. Hyper-rationality – This means thinking in literal, concrete terms. Much more weight is placed on the possible benefits of an action than the possible negative outcomes.

So, it’s not quite as simple as saying “raging hormones”. In reality, this change in structure looks like an inability or unwillingness to consider the consequences, engaging in what we old folk would call “risky behaviour” and seeking out friendships and situations where the teenage brain is able to supply its increased need for dopamine. It’s a PRO bias.

We also know that intuition plays an important part in making good decisions. Unfortunately, adolescents need to experience more of life, and be exposed to the types of situations that can lead to the development of this intuition. It like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

New research calls into question the idea that adolescence is a time to be endured… to hang on until they “grow out of it”. If we see adolescent behaviour and development as something to be nurtured — the emotional spark, the social engagement, the novelty seeking and the creative exploration as necessary and core to the stage of adolescence — this period becomes a time of immense importance. All the qualities just listed would make an amazing employee, parent or friend.

The theme then could become one of defensible risk taking. We know that teenagers are going to take risks and we can also see how the risk taking is necessary to their growth now and into the future. As parents, we also know that we can’t monitor our child’s whereabouts at all times. The task for us is to bend the risk taking into something that is challenging enough but safe enough to meet the need: competitive sport, drama or acting, rock climbing, surfing, wilderness etc. Be as creative as possible while trying to ensure the behaviour is novel and exciting enough to engage your boy. Maybe consider asking friends to come with you to enhance the social aspect.

Talking and modelling decision making is always a good idea. Think through a decision out loud; model the process of weighing up pros and cons, of using intuition. Aim for a positive outcome rather than a negative to appeal to the PRO bias in adolescent thinking. Rather than “stop smoking” try “cigarette companies are manipulating you to smoke to get your money…wouldn’t it be great if you outsmarted them and didn’t give them the money you worked so hard to get?” Maintain your values and your boundaries. Talk often, even if they don’t appear to be listening but keep in mind the teenage bias towards benefit and away from punishment, their need for new and novel experiences and get them addicted to something awesome.

Anthony Freeman

School Counsellor — Kinnoull Campus


Parts adapted from Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, byDaniel Siegel

Back to The Duce Issue 2016 08 - 2 June 2016