Understanding Dopamine’s Effect on the Teenage Brain
In my work with adolescents, many parents have difficulty understanding and connecting to their teenager. In moments of frustration, they seem to forget what it is like to be a teenager.
Daniel Siegel, in his book, Brainstorm (2015), discusses the importance of understanding the teenage brain. Often adults say that an adolescent is “immature” and needs to “grow up.” Siegel discusses that adolescence is an integral part of human development.
The Dopamine Reward Center
Research suggests that, in a teenager’s brain, there is increased activity involving dopamine, a reward-based neurotransmitter. Beginning in early adolescence and peaking halfway through, Siegel says this enhanced dopamine release causes a teenager to be attracted to more thrilling experiences. These experiences give them an intense sense of feeling alive. It can also lead them to focus solely on the positive rewards and less on the negative risks.
This drive towards these dopamine rewards in adolescence manifest in three ways: impulsiveness, susceptibility to addiction, and hyperrationality.
Impulsiveness occurs when a teenager engages in behaviors without thoughtful reflection or pause. Siegel says, “Pausing enables us to think about other options beyond the immediate dopamine-driven impulse pounding on our minds” (67). Although thoughtful reflection takes time, it is possible for an adolescent brain to do. Fibers growing in the brain begin to counteract the “revved-up go of the dopamine reward system.” These fibers can be enhanced through coaching and mindfulness training.
Teenage Susceptibility to Addiction
The second way the rewards drive manifests is into an increased susceptibility towards addiction. This is due to the fact that all addictive behaviors and substances release dopamine. This can be in the area of drugs, alcohol, food, sugar, etc. When a substance is used, increased levels of dopamine are released.
All addictive behaviors and substances release dopamine.
Once the substance wears off, the dopamine plummets–causing low energy, moodiness, and fatigue. With any addiction, any person will continue to engage in the behavior despite knowing its negative impacts. This shows the power of the dopamine reward centers.
Stay tuned for my next blog post. In Part Two we will discuss hyperrationality as well as the impact of emotional and social situations on decision making and performance.
Is your teen experiencing problems with their behavior? I specialize in counseling children and adolescents and can help. Click here to make an appointment.