The Teenage Brain: Why Your Adolescent is Like a Puppy Dog

Dr. Purushothaman
November 29, 2013

Teenage Brain

You are probably wondering why I chose such a puzzling title. It's not that I truly believe that adolescents and puppy dogs have a lot in common. However, I believe that there is a lot to be learned from a comparison of the two.

The puppy dog analogy stems from recent developments in our understanding of teenage brain development. We had believed that the human brain was fully mature by the age of puberty, usually around thirteen. This meant that our children approached the period of adolescence with brain hardware fully prepared to process the world in an adult manner. How to then explain the myriad acting out behaviors of the teenage years? How to explain the unbridled pursuit of excitement and pleasure one moment and then wanting to be taken care of like a helpless, dependent child the next?

The traditional explanations of the adolescent phase of development rested on the psychological premise that adolescence represents a period of conflicted emotional growth. The conflict represents a tug-of-war between the developmental drive to be independent, a grown up in total control with all the answers on the one time and a man-child who still needs mommy and daddy to provide sustenance and protection. It is as if the adolescent is standing on the threshold of adulthood, with one foot inside the front door of their home wanting to be taken care of and the other foot outside the threshold of the door ready to do battle with the world as a fully independent entity.

It is this dichotomy that is so vexing for parents of teenagers. It fully challenges our parenting skills as the psychological conflict of adolescence has us parents vacillate between maintaining protective control over a dependent child and coping with a rebellious force of nature that undercuts and acts out against any parental input. This accounts for the tumultuous time that we parents go through with our adolescent children. We get angry and frustrated in response to the acting out, while simultaneously feeling guilty for being angry at the confusion and inner angst so clearly present in our progeny.

One can understand how this psychological treatise makes sense out of the adolescent rite of passage. However, the entire premise of this argument rests on the assumption that the adolescent is operating with a mature central nervous system or brain. What if this premise is faulty? This is where the story gets more interesting.

Advances in brain imaging technology, made possible by the advent of the PET (positron emission tomography) scan and functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) have given us a highly refined window into the metabolic and vascular (blood flow) balance of the brain. For the first time we have been able to observe the activity of brain regions in the living brain. It has been possible to differentiate under-active areas from those that demonstrate normal activity or function.

Before this advance in radiological imaging, we assumed that the teenage brain was fully mature by puberty because it looked mature to the naked eye; its gross anatomy resembled that of the matured adult brain. All this changed when we obtained sophisticated imaging of teenage brain development. When the results were fully tallied, it became apparent that most brain areas were, in fact, mature, especially those areas of the limbic system involved in basic drives, procreation and survival of the fittest. The limbic system is present in most animal brains and is responsible for procreation, feeding behaviors, hunting and fight-flight behaviors. One could label the adolescent's limbic system as the seat for "sex, drugs, and rock and roll."

But not all of the brain turned out to be mature like the limbic system. The frontal cortex and especially the prefrontal cortex, presents as being quite immature in the adolescent. These brain centers are directly linked to what makes humans human: responsibility for future planning, delaying gratification, and providing control over basic primitive drives. The presence of an immature frontal cortex allows for a preeminent expression of the mature limbic structures. The end result is the youth behavior of the unbridled pursuit of "drugs, sex, and rock and roll" without the checks and balances provided by the higher cortical regions.

Where does the puppy dog come into the picture? It is really quite straightforward and simple. Those of us who have raised puppies know that this is a stage of dog behavior that is time-limited. A puppy dog is a puppy dog because of the maturity of the puppy's brain. Like the adolescent, puppy dog behavior begins to wane as the brain matures and neurons connect like they are meant to be in the adult animal.

The same way that we will treat our puppy dog with extra special care with an emphasis on protecting the animal from harm, we must protect our adolescents from the trials and tribulations of this period. Nancy Reagan was absolutely correct when she said "just say no to drugs."

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