Why Emotions Rule Behavior For Many Teens

Why Emotions Rule Behavior For Many Teens

One of the hardest parts of raising teens is the flood of emotions that teens experience. If you are a parent, this means navigating unpredictable moods which feels like you’re walking on eggshells. When a seemingly innocent, “How are you?” is met with a slammed door, it seems like no topic is safe.  If you’ve wondered why emotions rule behavior for many teens, read on to understand the brain and hormonal changes your teen is experiencing. You’ll understand why life with teens feel like an emotional flash flood warning is in effect.


The teen brain’s role in why emotions rule behavior for teens


The first place to start understanding why emotions rule behavior for many teens is brain research. Through their work, doctors like Frances Jensen and Dan Siegal help us understand how brain development is responsible for the emotional behavior we used to chalk up to hormones. Neuroscientists have concluded that the structure of the brain that is responsible for more logical thinking and planning, the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), is not entirely developed in teens.


When it’s fully developed, the PFC helps temper the more emotional, primal parts of the brain (the limbic structures). For instance, when you are livid with your boss, and you choose not to curse her out, you have your PFC to thank.


But without a fully functioning PFC, the teen feels a strong emotion and then acts it out. As Jensen puts it, “The limbic structures cause teens to experience emotions in technicolor, while we experience them in black and white.”


The pleasure-seeking teen brain


Also notable is that the limbic structures are also the most responsive to dopamine, the happy hormone, during the teen years. When we feel pleasure, or anticipate feeling it, dopamine is released. This made sense for the prehistoric teen who was told to leave the cave and find food. He did because he potential for reward came with a dopamine hit. The potential for food and increased social status far outweighed the danger. Without the PFC to warn it of the risks, the emotions carried the day.


Turns out that we might have the teen brain to thank for the survival of the species!


Lastly, the CEO of the limbic system is the amygdala, which acts as the gossiper, according to psychologist Marwa Azab. Without the PFC to speak from a logical perspective, the amygdala spreads rumors. A simple, “Hey, how are you?” can be misconstrued as, “Ohhh, I see you’ve got a zit. How are you?” The amygdala is relentless– its job is to detect danger, which was crucial for survival. The amygdala helps teens to be great observers but terrible interpreters. They sense something is amiss, but they lack the “hardware” to discern the level of risk. Check out Azab’s article about the role of the amygdala here.


Hormones impact why teens are so emotional


The old answer to why emotions rule behavior for many teens was simple: hormones. More accurately is that during adolescence, there is a release of hormones to places in the body where hormones have never been before. And it’s not just a physical thing.


In his book, Born To Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, And How We Can Help Keep Them Safe, Jess Shatkin talks about hormones in a way I’d never heard. It helped me better understand the role hormones play in why emotions rule behavior for many teens.


For instance, he explains that hormones impact way more than physical development. Hormones tune adolescents into the social order in a way they hadn’t experienced it before. That’s why they suddenly become aware of popularity and cliques. Testosterone helps teens become self-aware of how they are perceived.


During the teen years, we try desperately to gain acceptance by our peers because historically, that’s what improved our rank in the tribe.


Shatkin mentions a study that shows the impact of both hormones and the limbic system have on teen emotions. Teens were exposed to a stimulus meant to evoke social exclusion. On brain scans, scientists noted that the part of their brain that registered the exclusion was the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC). Interestingly, the DACC is what gets activated when we feel physical pain. In other words, emotional pain registers as physical pain.


Part of our development entails a primal awareness of social order and where we fall in it. And our hormones play a critical role in indicating where we are in that hierarchy. When we feel left out, we feel pain.


Testosterone won’t make teens change their behavior on its own, but it does alert teens of opportunities for success. Hormones are a primal message system that keeps teens “in with the cool crowd.” Combined with the limbic structures that are steering the ship, hormones help explain why saying no to a social gathering where everyone else gets to go feels so emotional. Their place in the tribe feels less secure, and they lack the logical voice that says, “There will be other opportunities.”


For me, the work of neuroscientists and psychologists is incredibly helpful in understanding why emotions rule behavior for many teens. They aren’t trying to be difficult or dramatic–they literally lack the equipment that helps tame their emotions. Their hormones are responsible for physical changes, but they also hook teens into the social order. Being part of the popular crew is a primal instinct, not a psychological one. Understanding the teen brain doesn’t mean that enduring these emotional episodes is any more pleasant. But at the very least, it gives you permission to not take it personally.


For more information on how to understand and connect with your teen during the tumultuous teen years, schedule a free consultation with me here. 


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