The Teenage Brain

The teenage brain – how the research can (and should?) inform practice

Published: 18/12/2020

Author: Alice Yeo

The second of our guided interviews is with esteemed clinical psychologist, Dr John Coleman.

He explains what happens neurologically as the adolescent brain develops, how this impacts on teenagers’ behaviour and why it is highly relevant for practitioners to understand. For children who could be at risk of or who have experienced exploitation, there are particular implications to be aware of.

Three key changes occur to the brain during adolescence:

  1. The structure of the brain changes – neural pathways are strengthened and consolidated; grey matter contracts. This results in an improvement in thinking, reasoning and language skills. The brain becomes ‘a leaner, meaner machine’. But the process itself is complex and can result in feelings of confusion, uncertainty and anxiety.
  2. Brain hormone levels fluctuate: including serotonin and melatonin which regulate mood and sleep respectively. Dopamine, known as the ‘reward hormone’, rises when pleasurable experiences occur. Teenagers have many more dopamine receptors than adults and are particularly sensitive to reward.
  3. The pre-frontal cortex (the ‘command and control centre’) is continuing to develop. During this process, it is vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed by the amygdala, which regulates emotions.

It is important to note that this process is different for every person. Brain development

  • a) happens at different rates;
  • b) is affected by environmental factors and trauma and;
  • c) is not set in stone – brain plasticity means change is inherent.

Implications for practitioners

  • An understanding of the extent of change happening to a teenager’s brain can help contextualise behaviour and the choices they make.
  • Some children may be more vulnerable to exploitation as a result of the neurological impact of growing up in extreme deprivation or poverty, or due to early trauma.
  • Brain plasticity means children can recover from negative experiences with the appropriate support.

What this means in practice is an area that the Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Support Programme is reflecting on and sharing in the work we do with local areas: in relation to trauma-informed responses; understanding of the nature of choice and agency amongst young people and implications in relation to avoiding the use of victim-blaming language.

Blurred boundaries: child exploitation, safeguarding and the criminal justice system

Read the third article from the TCE Support Programme on child exploitation, safeguarding and the criminal justice system

Alice Yeo

Alice Yeo

Alice Yeo is the Head of Evidence for the Tackling Child Exploitation Support Programme and works at the University of Bedfordshire.

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