Brain Developmental Changes Cause Teenage Anger and Angst

New research from Australia reveals that teens that get into fights may have significantly different brain structures than their more mellow peers.

Dr. Nicholas Allen of the University of Melbourne and his colleagues performed brain scans on 137 teenagers and then videotaped them interacting with their parents. The teens that got into fights with their parents tended to have overly developed structures in their brains that involved emotional responses.

“What we found was there was actually a relationship between the size and the structure of the various parts of the brain and the way kids behave in these interactions,” Dr. Allen said. “Their emotions are developing much faster than the parts of the brain that help them manage these emotions.”

Dr. Allen said little is known about how the environment affects brain development in teenagers. One study showed that girls who grow up in stressful homes go through early puberty. “We’re not sure if the environment is affecting the biology or if the biology is affecting the environment,” Dr. Allen explained.

Dr. Allen’s study was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Help Teen Boys Manage Anger by Staying Cool, Expert Advises

An expert on adolescent male anger advises parents to avoid playing the cop and to avoid getting angry themselves when their sons lose their tempers.

Dr. Michael Currie, author of Doing Anger Differently: Helping Adolescent Boys, says that anger is contagious and parents should resist it.

Teenage boys often are stuck in a “poor me” story in which they are victims of themselves and others. Many of the mothers who consult with Dr. Currie at the University of Newcastle in Australia tell him that their “obedient loving boys suddenly turned into raging men.” The teens, in turn, tell him “everything would be fine if only she’d shut up.” Dr. Currie believes a lot of the anger comes from broken families and a lack of participation from boys’ fathers.

In Dr. Currie’s experience, it often takes years to help an angry teen and to prevent him from turning into an angry, hostile adult. The key is to help your child find a goal for his life by listening and “digging to find the dream.”

“Any adolescent is angry to some extent,” Dr. Currie believes. “Anger is a deforming monster but also an ally that allows a boy to say things that otherwise would not be said.”

He advises parents to put themselves in their son’s place, acknowledge his anger but not appease it, even as you keep your cool.

Girls and Boys’ Brains Develop Similarly

A long-range study of the brain development of healthy children indicates that girls’ brains develop similarly to boys’, that family income is related to IQ, and that most mental development takes place before age six.

Scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Health studied 450 American children from a variety of backgrounds from birth to age 18 years, using tools such as MRIs and brain scans. They found very few significant differences between boys and girls in most paths of development although boys perform better at spatial and visual tasks and girls are better at motor speed. Children from wealthy households had higher IQs than those from poor families, although the difference was only ten points.

Children under age six are developing very fast mentally, but this process levels off for children ages 10 to 12, and then improves only slightly during adolescence.

This study appears in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.