It turns out your mother was right; angst-ridden teens really do have something wrong with their heads. A study published on Monday found that teens who regularly get into fights with their parents have significantly different brain structures than their more laid-back peers.
Australian researchers mapped the brains of around 137 early teens and videotaped them during “problem solving” conversations with their parents about disagreements over issues such as homework, bedtimes, or the Internet and cellphone use. “What we found was that there was actually a relationship between the size and the structure of various parts of the brain and the way the kids behave in these interactions,” said lead researcher Nicholas Allen of the University of Melbourne.
The parts of the brain which are involved in emotional responses were much more developed in the teens who got into fights with their parents, Allen said. “Their emotions are developing much faster than the parts of the brain that help them to manage those emotions,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s the kind of thing that hopefully catches up later on, but in between you’ve got this mismatch between the two.”
The findings should offer some comfort to parents trying to understand why their once-cheerful children have transformed suddenly into sulky, oversensitive strangers, especially because this mismatch is usually resolved by the mid-20s, which is when the brain stops developing. It need not always be so.
“There are all sorts of things that can influence grumpiness. It might be that the family has developed a poor pattern of interaction, it might be that the kid is lazy, or the kid needs to be taught more responsibility or to respect others more,” Allen said.
Other studies have found that extreme neglect and sexual or physical abuse can impact brain development. A stressful environment at home has also been linked to early onset of puberty in girls, he said. “What we don’t know anything about is, is there an effect of more normal variations in family environment on the way the brain develops?” said Allen.