Adolescence and Executive Function

adolescent brain

Teens’ Brains Are Still Growing

Adolescence introduces new responsibilities and expectations across all areas of one’s life. Ideally, individuals in these years build their identities and create the foundations for a healthy transition into young adulthood. As teens are developing their values, outlooks on life, and identities, their brains are also growing. The areas of the brain responsible for decision-making, reasoning, attention, and emotional regulation – processes that fall under the umbrella term of “executive function” – are still maturing throughout adolescence.

Combined with the social pressures common to this age group, risky behavior or impulsive decisions are common. By understanding these changes in the brain and the common causes of executive function issues, parents can help their adolescents overcome challenges and develop strategies to help them succeed across all areas of life. 

What is Executive Function?

Executive functioning refers to processes of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, decision making, and general high-level thinking. Skills related to executive functioning let us solve problems, consider consequences of actions, sustain our attention on a given task, and manage our emotional responses to situations. Executive function is also strongly tied to motivation, planning, organization, and goal setting. The parts of our brains responsible for these processes are not done developing by the time we are teenagers. In fact, the prefrontal cortex – responsible for these properties of higher-order thinking – continues to develop, and does not reach full maturity, until around age 25.         

How Is the Adolescent Brain Changing?

Research has shown that while “total brain volume reaches adult levels by puberty”, the brain still matures and becomes more efficient until the mid-20s. Specifically, “attentional skills and working memory mature” along with one’s capacity for making decisions. Many of the changes in brain structure occurring during adolescence may contribute to risk-taking and reward-seeking behavior, along with emotional instability. A still-developing prefrontal cortex, as well as enhanced responses in parts of the brain responsible for emotional responses, can lead to an “intensification of emotional experience” along with the deficits in self-control which sometimes characterize adolescence.

While these changes in the prefrontal cortex are occurring, the brain’s dopaminergic system – the system responsible for the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine – is undergoing a “dramatic remodeling.” Since dopamine is tied to feelings of pleasure and reward, this could account for the “increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers,” which is found so commonly in adolescence.

Causes of Executive Dysfunction

Given the fact that their brains are still years away from full maturation, it is no wonder that adolescents frequently struggle in areas related to executive function. However, some degree of difficulty in making decisions, regulating behavior, and dealing with emotion is simply a part of life in adolescents and adults. And while adolescents may be more prone to these difficulties, many still lead largely healthy lives and make good decisions more often than not. Adolescents who struggle with motivational issues, attentional problems, and emotional regulation may simply require more support or structure than others. Those who have more severe or persistent struggles in these areas, however, could be fighting some level of executive dysfunction.

Executive dysfunction is an umbrella term that refers to deficits in executive skills. Adolescents with executive dysfunction may have a hard time initiating tasks, staying motivated, regularly completing academic or daily living tasks, controlling their feelings, or inhibiting impulsive or aggressive behavior. These kinds of struggles can jeopardize a teenager’s social and academic success, not to mention their overall quality of life.

Issues with executive function have a variety of potential causes. Mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety, can frequently impair motivation, working memory, and the ability to manage emotions. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is also strongly associated with executive dysfunction in terms of attentional issues. Developmental disorders, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, may also contribute to executive dysfunction. While there is not a direct causal link between a lack of quality sleep and executive dysfunction, the two are related. Poor sleep is thought to influence executive dysfunction or worsen its symptoms. Researchers also point to neurological causes, such as a delay in the maturation of white matter integrity in the brain, as being potentially responsible for executive dysfunction. Acquired brain injuries can also lead to severe executive dysfunction.

Addressing Issues With Executive Function

If your teen or adolescent struggles with executive dysfunction or associated issues, there are numerous strategies you can use to help. Setting goals with your teenager, along with offering privileges or rewards for accomplishing them, can provide the extra motivation teens need to see a task through. Talk with your teen about what motivates them, what difficulties they might have, and what strategies have worked for them in the past. These could involve using planners or reminders to stay organized, studying in short bursts, working on developing healthier responses to emotions using breathing or de-stressing techniques, or other targeted strategies to address your teen’s challenges.

In “Parent-Teen Therapy for Executive Function Deficits and ADHD,” the authors identify three helpful goals for parents: “developing compensatory strategies, identifying environments that maximize strengths and minimize deficits, and avoiding major negative life events.” The authors recommend the regular practice of compensatory skills, like time management and organization. They suggest that parents develop a supervised structure or schedule with their teen that prioritizes the practice of these tasks before leisure time.[vi]

The use of therapy or academic counseling can also provide teenagers a format for discussing their struggles. A counselor can help them learn and practice necessary skills, and provide a structure of positive reinforcement to keep those changes moving in the right direction. Therapy can also play an important role in addressing underlying mental health conditions, like ADHD or depression, which can often contribute to or outright cause executive dysfunction in the first place.

With its countless new expectations, pressures, and experiences, adolescence can prove a difficult stage of life. Adjusting to these factors and succeeding academically, socially, and personally requires the ability to solve problems, manage emotions, and stay organized and focused on goals. Addressing serious or recurrent challenges with executive function requires a great deal of patience, flexibility, and work on the part of parents and their teenagers. It also requires that parents approach their teen’s challenges with an open mindset, and not with the assumption of laziness on the part of their child.

With a focus on implementing new skills, creating an environment that plays to your teen’s strengths, and taking advantage of professional help, if necessary, parents can help their teenagers work through issues with executive function to develop the skills, confidence, and decision making they need to be productive, healthy adults.

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