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Why Are Teens So Emotional?

Research shows slow connections between logical and emotional brain parts.

Why are teens so dramatic? There are good explanations from neuroscience.

In order to answer this question, I am going to reduce the brain to emotional versus logical systems. The emotional system is the limbic brain structures, whereas the logical system is the frontal regions. The limbic system contains brain areas that are important for emotions, drives, reward, and motivation. The frontal system contains areas important for decision-making, impulse control, and inhibiting socially unacceptable faux-pas. These two systems have a different development schedule. Also, the connections between them mature throughout the teen years.

At any age, these limbic structures are intimately connected. But, there are some important differences in brain wiring between the adult and teen brains. These differences help explain why teens are sometimes seen as overly emotional.

At the beginning of the teen years, the limbic system is underdeveloped and disconnected from the non-limbic rational brain areas, which develop much later. The CEO of the limbic system is the amygdala. During the teen years, it helps to think of the amygdala as the “gossiper." It loves to spread bad news and rumors. Of course, it has accomplices, such as the hypothalamus. This small but manipulative structure adds hormones to expedite the spreading of fiery rumors.

During teen years, the limbic system grows extra ears to listen to gossip and builds more buckets for the hypothalamus to pour in sex hormones such as testosterone (found in all teens, but much more in boys). So, a teen might end up misperceiving a benign "hello" as "I am watching you" or "I noticed that pimple."

As teens get older (like in their early 20s), the limbic system listens to the more rational parts of the brain the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and less to the amygdala gossip. More importantly, the PFC eventually develops and extends fast communication lines to the limbic system, and functions as the ‘brakes’ or inhibitor of excessive gossip. Parenting, education, and opportunities can guide and strengthen the connections between the limbic system and the PFC.

While all roads lead to Rome (the amygdala), there are ones that are more dangerous than others. In the brain, many routes take you to the amygdala, but there is a safe one that we should try to take some of the time. Because emotions and feelings are a part of our everyday life, we need to understand efficient ways to process them.

Emotions are more than the salt and pepper our brains use to season our lives. If excessive, life can be distasteful. If under seasoned, life can be tasteless. So, emotions are very important. We just need to befriend them, understand them, and harness their energy, especially during the teen years to make the best out of the rest of the mind.

The first route to the amygdala is really fast and outside our awareness. Via our five senses, we see, hear, smell, or feel something in the world around us, and then this information runs to the amygdala to give it first dibs on the story. The amygdala gets activated and starts gossiping and tells the hormonal system to quickly release chemicals that spread in the blood circulation so that all organs listen to the gossip. It also gossips with the autonomic nervous system, specifically the sympathetic nervous system, SNS. Here is what the SNS does to show alliance with the amygdala’s anger and fear:

  • The heart beats faster
  • The eyes dilate
  • Sweat glands produce more sweat,
  • Kidneys make less urine, and
  • The digestive organs and glands inhibit their function (less saliva and slower digestion)

At the same time, the amygdala activates emotional behaviors. The amygdala, along with its accomplices, makes sure that blood circulation is diverted to muscles consistent with the emotional responses and away from any muscles not necessary for the emotional response. It also diverts brain activation to brain areas important for confirming its biases. So, learning centers are not important for now, and shut down. If teens don't develop strategies to manage their emotions, they cannot learn at school.

The second route to the amygdala is slow, but information eventually gets to it. So, information from the world around us comes through our five senses, but instead of going to the amygdala, it goes for a mini vacation up in the frontal cortex PFC, the more logical but slower part of the brain. The information is processed for the level of safety, compared to previous knowledge, assessed for future value. After it relaxes in the PFC and gets armored with reason, past evidence, future goals, and then it is fed into the amygdala.

But why on earth would our brains have the fast reactive route to the amygdala? One simple answer: Because the amygdala’s fast response is required to save you when you are in real danger. The brain reacts the same to the following two scenarios:

  1. You are being chased by a big hungry bear
  2. You interpreted Fatima’s neutral “hello” as a hostile intent to get you

So, here is the thing: Whether the danger is real, imagined or exaggerated, your brain will react the same. The brain only hears “you are in danger, your safety is in question” and it will save you at all costs.

Because of the super reactivity of the amygdala during the teen years, teens are likely to interpret neutral stimuli as threatening. MRI scans of teen brains when looking at pictures of neutral faces show activation in the amygdala more than adults and children. Teens interpret a neutral expression as negative. So, if the soccer coach is not overly smiling, a teen might interpret that as "my coach hates me."

To summarize, teens are highly emotional because of a hyperactive amygdala that generates many "danger" false alarms and slow, inefficient connections between the logical PFC and the emotional amygdala (i.e., a faulty inhibition system and loose brakes).

Your teen is not crazy. Their brains are going under massive remodeling. Our jobs as their parents, educators, and mentors are to be their best advocates and to encourage healthy rewiring of their brains.

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