The Limbic system: The Accelerator in a Teenage Brain

Much has been written about teenagers and the brain and indeed, the brain does go through a revolutionary overhaul during the adolescent years. One could describe this overhaul as the second brain ‘reboot’ beyond the toddler phases and some parents will say they observe the similarities.

The Limbic system is hugely influential and key during the teenage years, being very active and often over-reactive. This emotional engine, or motor system, located in the core brain is responsible for survival, memory assessment and storage. The complex limbic system comprises many parts including the Amygdala, the Hypothalamus and the Hippocampus.

The Amygdala is known as the processor for sensory systems such as vision, touch, hearing, taste and smell. Any emotional experience is channelled and bi-mediated by the Amygdala and the Frontal Lobes (the more thinking brain). The limbic system can be likened to the accelerator in a car, while the frontal lobe acts as the brake.  Thus already explaining an imbalance or pendulum swing of highly sophisticated responses and reactions in teenagers to more toddler-like temper tantrums and rages of old.

The Hypothalamus, although small, is critical for life – acting as the control centre. It is connected to both the pituitary gland, a master gland and producer of hormones, and the autonomic nervous system, responsible for unconscious bodily functions i.e. breathing, heartbeat and digestion. The Hypothalamus helps us to respond to our internal and external environments and is responsible for the bodily expressions of emotions like fear and anger. It is an ancestral hardware program that primes us to react appropriately to threatening environments – a very hard-wired biological function that helps us survive.‎

One can see how teenagers, with all the new pressures of a ‘switchy’ overused chat forum, can feel under pressure to look good and say the right cool thing in a dog-eat-dog world of social networking. For example when singled out on Instagram or publicly humiliated by a friend on Snapchat.

And finally, the Hippocampus forms an important part of the limbic system as the regulator of emotions, working alongside long-term memory, emotions and motivation. It can be likened to a storage system for early memories and formation of long-term memories and spacial navigation. Again a potent part of the brain in flux! So if this part of the brain is operating at full throttle whilst the braking system is still in development, one can see why teenagers are often seen as being overly dramatic. When one’s survival system is operating very much on high alert, making us irrational and chaotic, life is a speedway drama – and we have no way of slowing it down! This could explain why teenagers can quickly fire up, acting on impulse when highly stimulated, yet understanding the consequences once calmer. Within their peer group, amongst similar ‘in progress’ and emotionally reactive brains that may also be on high alert, their natural propensity is to react spontaneously rather than process. The detail and minutiae of teenage life may often seem disproportionately over-sensitive to an adult but a sudden breakout of acne can feel utterly devastating when facing up to someone you fancy at school and could possibly mean being singled out. And when your favourite pair of jeans have shrunk in the wash when you really need to look cool amongst your friends, it is a big deal! Having ‘nothing to wear’ when appearance is intrinsic to being accepted in a group is a disaster of epic proportions!

Teenagers also become more self-aware and explains why peer pressure becomes more obvious. Peer approval is incredibly rewarding as teenagers find their place in the world, which can sometimes result in more risky behaviour with other teenagers around.

Teenagers are engaged in practising new skills such as group planning, identity within the group, compromise and negotiation – complex skills, which at first they are not so adept at.

When the amygdala is heightened, along with additional surges of raging hormones, extreme emotional experiences are bound to be intensified and seem highly charged. Indeed teenagers are having a souped up and overly-accelerated growth spurt. These emotional injections help them to develop and be ready for the emotional complexity of adulthood.

Parents and teachers will recognise these strong emotions:

  • Aggression towards others and to self: this could explain increase in or experimenting with self-harming.
  • Frightening rages: where parents find their child being physical with them or swearing at them, calling them names.
  • Increased fears: where teenager can have unusual spooks as in not being able to go into a shop or speak on phone when previously they seemed confident and had good self esteem.
  • Obviously excitement and sexual attraction is on the rise. There is a lot going on!

Again the intensity of emotions can also be explained by the lack of control or self-regulation when faced with the fledgling braking system. The frontal lobe is actually under construction until we reach the age of 25. But surely the process doesn’t start at 11 yrs old and last until the age of 25, does it? Well parents and teachers may observe and note a peak around school years 8, 9 & 10. And of course, teenagers are bound to be confused with this over-flooding of the limbic system which is why adults, parents and teachers can often be misread and perceived as being out of touch or possibly even threatening at times.

Another hormone that needs to develop in order to achieve the adult loving relationship is Oxytocin, the ‘bonding’ or ‘falling in love’ hormone. This increases in sensitivity and will of course have a huge effect on the brain. Self-consciousness is overly apparent and felt simultaneously with the sense of importance, which could explain seeming to be self-centred. Again, this is getting them ready to place themselves in the world, thinking more about who they want to be or how they want to participate as an adult.

Grey matter questions can seem too vague whilst this fine tuning is in process, the all or nothing way of dealing with situations is more apparent until they can deal with more variables or shades and subtleties. Parents need not provide the answers but rather explore options for teenagers to find their own solutions and enhance their decision-making skills.

On one hand a teenager wants more independence with a new way of thinking. Surprisingly they can possess all the decision-making skills of an adult but may easily become overwhelmed with emotion. This may confuse parents who observe their teenager as wanting more independence, yet seemingly regressing, being more tentative. They may appear to lose their confidence and mojo in ways reminiscent of the toddler years (the first brain revolution) hence needing more loving and care.

With all of this complex development going on, one can understand why teenagers find it hard to get up in the morning or may be in ‘lock down’ mode on school mornings, becoming absentees. School, which used to be a somewhat enjoyable place, now poses a more challenging environment to deal with. Or the group of friends they once had no longer works and teenagers can start to feel lonely or depressed. Schools are now understanding that a later start to a school day puts less pressure on teenagers and will be a lot more conducive to learning and dealing with social complexities they face daily at school.