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Dopamine, Brain Development, and Your Growing Adolescent: What Parents Need to Know

If you've ever felt frustrated by your teenager's actions, you're certainly not alone. Almost every parent can relate to being confused or angry over what their child has (or hasn't) done.

There's no doubt that these years can be particularly difficult for the entire family. Even though you love your teenager, you may grieve for their younger self. Subsequently, you might worry about the person they are becoming.

That said, the more you openly question or try to control their behavior, the more defensive they will react. Codependent relationships can reinforce helplessness and resentment for everyone. That's why self-awareness and education are so important when it comes to feeling connected. Here's what you need to know.

How Dopamine Impacts Teenagers

It's a misconception that teenagers don't understand the risks of making certain decisions. On the contrary, the world-renowned child psychologist, Daniel Siegel, argues that teenagers are fully aware of the gravity of their actions. But they simply place far more stock on the potential rewards rather than the potential consequences.

Why? Because during adolescence, the brain experiences an increase in neural circuits using dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that the body naturally produces. It plays a vital role in how we seek and feel pleasure. In addition, dopamine also shapes thinking, planning, focus, and motivation. Dopamine, therefore, is at the forefront of many of the daily decisions we make.

The enhanced dopamine release in adolescence likely contributes to your child's desire for rebellion, impulsivity, and thrill. It may even explain why teenagers feel bored or restless when things are relatively calm.

Consider this: how do you remember your emotions when you were a teenager? Were they larger than life? Incredibly raw and nearly indescribable? If so, that's probably a response to being flooded with dopamine! Even though your reactions may seem dramatic now, they were undoubtedly real when you were experiencing them.

When Dopamine Gets Disrupted

We're still on the brink of fully understanding the role of neuroscience in how it affects human behavior. But research shows that too little, too much, or malfunctions with dopamine can coincide with mental illness.

ADHD: Many adolescents have ADHD. Researchers once believed that ADHD stemmed from reduced levels of dopamine. But the relationship appears to be more complex. It's now suggested that people with ADHD experience higher concentrations of dopamine transporters in the brain. Excess transporters may remove dopamine too quickly, giving the neurotransmitter less time to do its job.

Substance use disorders: Mood-altering substances cause a significant surge of dopamine. That's why the drug itself feels so good. But repeated use can lead to tolerance, meaning the brain needs more and more of the drug to sustain the pleasurable effects. At the same time, drugs inhibit how the body produces dopamine naturally. This process can exacerbate cravings and make it difficult to stop using.

Depression: Adolescents are particularly prone to depression. Anhedonia, one of the main symptoms of depression, might be a response to the dopamine system. If dopamine is not working efficiently, people have a harder time experiencing pleasure and joy. They also may feel less motivated to take care of themselves or engage in meaningful relationships, thus worsening their depressed mood.

Eating disorders: Eating disorder symptoms often emerge in adolescence. And while there are many risk factors for eating disorders, some research suggests that dopamine may be associated with binge eating, purging, and other problematic behaviors. Dopamine may also coincide with heightened cravings for pleasure, which some people with eating disorders pair with food.

Can You Help Your Teenager Make Better Decisions?

You may feel discouraged learning about dopamine and its impact on the teenage brain. But there are steps you can take to help keep your child safe. Here are some practical tips:

Be willing to have uncomfortable, taboo conversations: Don't shy away from talking about sex, drugs, eating disorders, or other potentially "scary" topics. Model that you are completely open and willing to engage in these conversations at any time.

Embrace natural consequences: As hard as it may be, it's essential to be mindful of your own parental anxiety by accepting your child may engage in risks that you don't like. Trust that natural consequences may motivate them to reflect inward or change.

Set specific boundaries: Even if you embrace natural consequences, you can and should have firm limits about what behavior you will and will not tolerate. Make it a point to state these boundaries often. Your child should not have to guess your intentions or wonder if you're actually serious.

Show a continuous interest in their life: It always helps to be involved and active in your child's life. Keep in mind this is not the same as being a helicopter parent. Instead, get to know their friends and hobbies. Aim to ask thoughtful questions about their opinions. Remember that your child is a whole human with unique interests and needs. Do your best to convey respect, even when disagreeing with something they say or do.

Consider sharing your own lived experience: You may decide to share stories from your teenage years with your child. In doing so, make sure that you keep the content age-appropriate. Don't glorify the behaviors (that can make them seem even more enticing). Instead, focus on the feelings or consequences you experienced afterward.

How We Can Help Your Adolescent

The teenage years can be challenging for everyone in the family. Your child values autonomy and craves freedom. You, of course, want them to be safe. It's scary thinking that they might do something seriously dangerous.

We understand the tension that often arises due to these natural conflicts. But you don't have to feel like you're constantly battling your teenager. You two can feel united and even connected during this critical time in their life.

We are here to help support and guide families through every stage of life. Our unique treatment offers practical resources, ongoing support, and unconditional positive regard. Contact us today to learn more!

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