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Art & story by Courtney Suber

Teen Brains & Mental Health: Understanding and Respecting a Developing Mind

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The age that one is considered an adult is traditionally when they turn 21. When you’re 21 you’re able to gamble, purchase cigarettes, and enter a bar or club. These are all pretty big feats in the eyes of society, but it’s a simple fact that you are not fully an adult until you are 25. 

Dr. Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist interviewed by NPR, said this about brain development: “The changes that happen between 18 and 25 are a continuation of the process that starts around puberty, and 18-year olds are about halfway through that process. Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal.” 

With this known fact, why do we set such high expectations for teenagers, individuals whose brains aren’t fully developed, individuals who are unable to completely organize behavior?

In high school teenagers are meant to be the perfectly crafted student. We are meant to sit still for hours at a time, funneling information into our heads, then go home to study for hours more. This is all while maintaining a social life with lots of friends, playing a sport, having a job, and being active in clubs — be it through school or somewhere else. When you write such a jumbled schedule and such daunting expectations down on paper it sounds completely outrageous, and that’s because it is. We expect the most out of childish brains, brains that aren’t yet properly programmed to reach goals, like said by Dr. Sandra Aamodt, who is also the co-author of the book, “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College.” 

The pressure which is created by such a strenuous schedule is harmful to teenagers and serves to create a culture of mental turmoil. When an individual feels as if they cannot meet all the expectations which are set for them, a teenager can be led to feel vast amounts of disappointment. All humans feel hurt by disappointment, whether it’s a childish mind or an adult one. Being that teenage brains are not fully developed, the emotions felt from disappointment can be immense. Such pressure from outside sources is detrimental to the teenage mind and sets up teenagers to suffer. 

Although teenagers are emotional beings whose brains are not fully developed, it does not strip them from their humanity. It seems very easy for adults to discard the feelings of teenagers. To be boiled down to a so-called “emotional mess” not only infantilizes a teenager but can lead them to feeling invalid in their feelings and emotions. Teenagers are already plagued by social stigma, which is associated with the expectations made for them, and such infantilization can also be harmful to teenage mental health.

How can people respect teenage mental health while still understanding their brains are not fully developed? The simple answer is to be a feeling and emotional person. This can be done by appealing to the emotions of the teenager in your life, and avoiding condescending language. If they seem stressed, or irrationally feeling one emotion, take a step back and speak to them kindly. Be empathetic toward teenagers and understand that we all went through such feelings and turmoil once. 

Although teenagers have brains which are not yet developed, we are still human, and should be treated as such. Although when you turn 21 you can live it up and do things which are considered “grown up,” it’s important to understand that teenagers at heart are just that: teenagers, and their emotional health should be not only treated with care, but regarded with respect and understanding.

Courtney Suber is a student at North Springs High School who has served as the co-editor of the school’s student publication The Oracle

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