- Adolescent brains are laser-focused on their peers and social standing due to evolution and endocrinology.
- Threats to relationships and social standing are quite harmful during the teen phase of brain development.
- Knowing about the emotional roller coaster of adolescence, adults should strive to be compassionate.
Why is bullying so harmful to adolescent brains? Before looking at the very negative impact of bullying during this phase of brain development, we need to understand what kind of changes are happening and why they make young people particularly susceptible to bullying behaviours.
Psychologists and neuroscientists who specialize in adolescence define the phase as beginning around 13 years of age and concluding around 25 based on brain development. The brain does not become fully mature or adult until 24 or 25 years, in some cases, even older.
While youth may look like adults, from a brain perspective, it’s not the case. Frequently, experts describe the adolescent brain as having a race car gas pedal, that goes from zero to 60, and the brakes of a bicycle. This combination, needless to say, puts teens and twenty-somethings at risk. In fact, as Daniel Siegel cautions, adolescents are three times more likely to die during this phase of brain development than in childhood or adulthood.
The gas pedal is associated with the limbic region of the brain, involved in emotions, drives, and impulses. The brakes are associated with the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in decision-making, reasoning, weighing pros and cons, and thinking about future consequences. It is the prefrontal cortex, or the “CEO of the brain,” that matures last. As Frances Jensen advises, as a neuroscientist and mother of teen boys, adults need to be the prefrontal cortex for adolescents because theirs is not yet ready.
David Walsh says adults may furiously and incredulously ask teens and twenty-somethings: What were you thinking? And it’s fair for the youth to respond: "I wasn’t thinking; I can’t fully think things through like you can because my brain is not yet fully mature. The rational, reasonable prefrontal cortex isn’t fully constructed yet."
What are the characteristics of the adolescent brain?
Evolution and endocrinology prime teens and twenty-somethings to leave the family cave, exit the security and safety of their tribe, and explore a risky, challenging world beyond. The brain pushes the youthful brain to find a mate and establish relations with a new tribe. Hence, adolescent brains are laser-focused on their peers and social standing.
Laurence Steinberg studied adolescent brain development in diverse countries and learned that regardless of different lifestyles and cultures, brain development showed the same characteristics. In other words, adolescent brain changes are as natural and as unstoppable as their physical changes. Another way to put this: The sometimes challenging, provocative conduct is not their fault. They’re not choosing to have the characteristics of the adolescent brain.
Adolescents are drawn to peers, are full of risk-taking and reward-seeking, have intense emotions, learn rapidly, and are creative. All of these traits in the past gave young people the drive to leave home, the courage to explore, the motivation to bond with a new group, and as Sarah Blakemore explains “invent” a new self—an adult self.
Steinberg and his team conducted research to figure out just how much peers influenced adolescents. Their experiment revealed that teens and twenty-somethings driving cars take more risks and seek more rewards if they believe peers are observing them. They become self-conscious and strive to impress. In contrast, adults drive the same whether they’re being watched or not. Statistics show that with every peer added to a young driver’s car, the risk of accidents increases.
Acute sensitivity to peers puts bullied adolescents at risk
Conduct that humiliates, mocks, exposes, isolates, demeans, and threatens adolescents’ relationships and social standing is especially harmful during this phase of brain development. All forms of bullying can leave neurological scars and dismantle brain architecture. Extensive studies of brain scans offer evidence of the physical changes in a bullied brain. Not just peer bullying, but also adults who use these types of behaviours, perhaps believing they lead to self-regulation or obedience, are likely doing far more harm than good.
When informed about the intense brain development during this phase, it’s healthy and effective to work with the adolescent brain, not against it. Parents, teachers, and coaches can harness risk-taking and channel it into ethical, intellectual, artistic, and athletic challenges. They can respond to reward-seeking by being full of gratitude and praise for effort rather than driving teens and twenty-somethings to social media for approval.
Knowing about the emotional roller coaster of adolescence, parents, teachers, and coaches can strive to be as empathic and compassionate as possible. They can harness mindfulness to increase their own patience with young people’s emotional highs and lows. They can be attuned to the lows to ensure impulsivity isn’t mixed in so that poor decisions are made to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, and that self-harm isn't being used as an escape.
Knowledge about adolescent brain development helps everyone
The more adults teach teens and twenty-somethings about their rapidly and intensely developing brains, the more young people can understand why they are feeling and acting the way they do. Young people can be taught that all forms of bullying not only hurt targets’ brains but also the bullies’ brains and it’s to be avoided at all costs. Behaviours that threaten or harm social-emotional relationships must be constantly addressed as extremely harmful and serious.
Adults need to role-model empathy and teach it to youth. Buy-in can be on career development since empathy is a sought-after quality in the work world and especially in leadership. Have young people think about the role empathy plays in all kinds of different roles and professions. Then have them try to find job descriptions that are looking for bullying behaviours. Award a prize to any student who finds one. Adults can support young people in learning that due to their brain’s neuroplasticity, namely the ability to strengthen neural networks that are repeatedly fired up and wired in, they can strengthen their empathy and weaken any impulse to bully.
Stopping all forms of bullying is important, but there also needs to be equal or greater energy put into social-emotional connection, peer respect, healthy decisions around belonging to the group, and contributing in a unique way. Young people can be reminded daily that every single brain is unique. Everyone has something to bring to the group.
Blakemore, S. (2018). Inventing Ourselves. New York: Hachette.
Jensen, F. & Nutt, A. (2015). The Teenage Brain. Toronto: HarperCollins.
Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm. New York: Penguin.
Steinberg, L. (2015). Age of Opportunity. New York: Harper.
Walsh, D. (2004). Why Do They Act that Way? New York: Free Press.