The Adolescent Brain And Depression

Posted on November 2nd, 2017

Moodiness, thrill-seeking, rebellion, and wanting to spend more time with friends than parents can often characterize adolescence. Many of these characteristics can confuse or frustrate parents. You may think, “Why didn’t you do the dishes after I asked?,” “Why did you tell me you were going to Jack’s house, but you went somewhere else instead?,” or “Why won’t you talk to me anymore?” These types of questions are common for parents of teens. Through the lens of an adult, choices and behaviors of teenagers often seem illogical. However, there are neurological explanations for why teens act the way they do.

The adolescent brain is under construction. It will continue to develop through the mid-20s. Watching your child grow up, you’ve noticed physical growth spurts. Your child also goes through neural growth spurts where significant changes happen in the brain. During adolescence, this period of neural growth creates more connections, neurons, and receptors. This growth improves the brain’s ability to communicate by sending more efficient signals throughout the body and brain. Following this spurt comes a period of pruning, when the brain becomes more selective about which pathways to preserve. Pruning is when some neural pathways are insulated, and those that are not being used are cut off. We see maturity begin to blossom in teens as their brains become closer to the wiring of an adult brain. The brain develops its instinctual areas first and the decision-making and reasoning areas last. When we wonder why teens don’t just make the logical choice, the answer is that their brain might not be at that stage of growth yet.

The limbic system is an area of the brain that is very active in teens. It allows us to find things pleasurable, stressful, scary, arousing, or saddening. The limbic system is often associated with our gut instinct – our innate emotional reactivity to stimulus. This area of the brain develops before the prefrontal cortex, which takes care of more complex processes such as rational thinking, problem-solving, planning, judgment, impulse control, and decision-making. Teenagers make use of the limbic system more than adults, and studies show the path of reasoning and decision-making in teen brains use different brain structures than an adult’s brain would. When we intake information from the world, it will first pass through the limbic system where we respond to the stimulus based on our gut reactions. This can be colored by past experiences or memories and our opinions. After the limbic system, information passes through the prefrontal cortex and is filtered through complex reasoning, impulse control, and measured analysis of information. As teenagers, they will be naturally more dependent on the limbic system to guide their decision making. As the brain continues to grow, studies have found that the neural connections between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex greatly improve, allowing for more adult-like thinking and decisions.

The brain and depression

When exposed to a stressor, the body releases hormones into our nervous system. To some degree, stress can be positive and act as a motivator. However, too much stress can be harmful to one’s well-being. In teenagers with depression, stressful events will lead to an overactive stress response. You may notice a higher degree of sensitivity to events and stronger reactions to stimuli. Stress can impact the developing brain in multiple ways. Stressful events may lead to neural vulnerabilities such as decreased neural growth, lowered levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, decreased ability for emotional regulation, higher levels of stress hormones, impaired memory, and decreased resilience.

Depressed adolescents may present with sadness, loss of interest in activities, hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, decreased energy, difficulties making decisions, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, withdrawal/isolation, suicidal ideation, and irritability. They might withdraw from relationships with friends or family, have no energy to participate in regular activities that were not previously draining, seemingly have a personality change, struggle with school work and not be able to focus, or respond with anger or irritability.

Steps you can take as parents to support your teen who may show signs of depression are:

  • Offer a chance for your teen to share with you, practice open mindedness and listening to what they’re saying. It can be frustrating and feel like they are not being listened to when they are moved to the problem-solving stage before they’re ready. Pushing to problem-solving before they’re ready can lead to your teen shut you out.
  • Do not underestimate the power of empathy. Having a place to vent where your teen feels heard, understood, and not judged can be incredibly effective and unburdening for the difficult thoughts and feelings they might be carrying. This also serves to create a stronger relationship between you and your teen. It is important in empathy to not invalidate your teens feelings regardless of your own reaction.
  • Have positive interactions with your teen. Sometimes it is hard to see and feel some positivity when you’re depressed. Your teen may need some help from people around them to break free from the spell of negativity. You can model or practice with your teen what you do for self-care when you’re feeling down. Going through the motions and helping them participate in things outside their normal depression-related habits will help strengthen the experience in their brain.
  • Provide healthy nutrients for your teen to eat. The foods that a teen consumes can influence how they feel. It is important to make sure they’re getting enough water and foods to support them as they cope with their depression. Proper nutrients and water will fuel the brain and body of your growing teen.
  • Notice any patterns that your teen may experience. One example of a pattern is the difficult push at the end of the school year when your teen is trying to stay on top of homework, complete end of term projects, and study for finals all while being exhausted from the rest of the school year. Think about the other patterns that you notice with your teen and how you might be able to help your teen through those difficult times.
  • Lastly, be patient with your teen and realistic about what they can manage. Parenting a teen with depression necessitates a different parenting approach than one you would use with a teen who is not depressed. Treatment needs time to provide lasting results that are deeper than the surface level symptoms. It is normal for parents to be at a loss of how to approach this. Reaching out to professionals for guidance on how to parent your teen through this time can save you and your teen from a lot of misunderstandings and frustration.

It’s important to understand that while teens go through many changes in their environment, there are significant biological factors that explain many of your teen’s thoughts and behaviors. If your teen has any of the above depressive symptoms, talk with your teen to try and understand how he/she is feeling and seek the help of a professional when needed.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.