The phenomenon of teenage angst has been widely acknowledged in the literature. Ask any parent about this issue and you will probably get a lengthy story about their teenager locking themselves in their rooms, refusing to engage with the family or being extremely moody. Physiological changes occurring in adolescence can prompt many teens to feel depressed or moody. But how can parents and teens differentiate between the normal angst of adolescence and the development of a more serious mental health problem, such as depression?
Answering this question is difﬁ cult, as current scientiﬁc research regarding teen depression indicates that the phenomenon is more common than once thought. Statistics provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) demonstrate that one in every 17 individuals in the U.S. currently suffers from a mental illness. Data also indicates that half of individuals with mental illness begin to exhibit symptoms of their disorder by age 14. Thus, if your teen is experiencing signiﬁ cant changes in mood or depressive symptoms that do not seem to abate, it is possible that these issues may indicate the development of an underlying mental health problem.
Early detection and treatment will be key to improving outcomes for the adolescent across his or her lifespan.Changes in the Brain During Adolescence. The changes that occur in the human brain during adolescence can be compared to what occurs during a massive highway construction process. When construction on a new highway begins, old routes are either reconstructed or abandoned altogether while new routes are established to help vehicles travel to and reach their destinations more quickly. During adolescence, a similar process occurs in the brain.
Existing neural pathways are bombarded with a high inﬂ ux of hormones, essentially changing the way in which the brain operates. In some instances, existing routes for information ﬂ ow are shut down while new ones are built. This reconstruction of the brain during this period of time enables information to travel more efﬁ ciently, facilitating the ability of the adolescent to make new connections between information and garner new insight. The changes that occur in the brain during adolescence are quite dramatic and can result in noticeable changes in your teen’s personality. While the inﬂux of hormones may result in changes in mood that can present challenges for adolescent coping, the insight garnered from new perspectives can also cause changes in mood as well. Teens may begin to realize the complexity of the world around them, prompting them to feel depressed about their prospects for the future.
While most teens are resilient to these changes and are able to use coping mechanisms to quell fears and anxiety, some teens may internalize these feelings. When this occurs, further changes in the brain’s neural pathways may result, facilitating the development and onset of mental health issues such as depression.Navigating the Changes When the changes that occur in the adolescent brain are reviewed, overall it is not surprising to ﬁnd that half of all adults with serious mental health issues develop symptoms before the age of 14.
Adolescence is a unique period of growth in which the neural pathways in the brain change dramatically. While parents and family members cannot prevent these changes from occurring, there are steps that loved ones can take to help improve outcomes for the teen, reducing angst and the potential for developing long term mental health issues.In order to facilitate the development of the adolescent brain, parents and loved ones must consider the role of experience. While hormones will clearly play a dominant role in the development of the adolescent brain, experiences play an equally important role in shaping outcomes during this period of development.
With this in mind, family members should take opportunities to broaden the experiences of teens and to help them engage in new hobbies and activities. Positive experiences during the adolescent years will help shape the teen’s self-image and strengthen neural pathways that emphasize behaviors such as exploration and curiosity. Parents and loved ones can also take a supervisory role in their teen’s life, creating an environment in which the adolescent can safely explore the external environment. Issues such as nutrition, getting an adequate amount of sleep each night and remaining active should serve as the foundation for directing adolescent behavior. However, parents should allow teens to explore their worlds independently to promote a sense of self-efﬁcacy and self-esteem. Enabling teens to succeed on their own also facilitates the development of neural pathways that will enhance positive emotions and may help prevent the onset of depression.
Dr. Clatch practices at the Courage to Connect Therapeutic Center, 2400 Ravine Way, Suite 600, Glenview. For more info, call 847-347-5757 or visit couragetoconnecttherapy.com.