The Rebellious Teen – is it impulsive behaviour or is there a neuroscientific explanation?

Kamal Balaa
This summer I turned 13. I’m finally a teenager! My parents wanted to make it memorable for my twin sister and I. Knowing our love for water and adventure, they enrolled us in the Scuba School International to get our scuba license. I was so excited! I was eager to put on 60-pound scuba gear and just jump into the deep waters of Morrison Quarry.

“Easy there my little shark” is what I heard from my dad! “You will have 10 days of home study, a weekend of coaching with your instructor, followed by a test before you can even think of diving!”

“Wait, what, Why!” I thought. At that moment, I didn’t think through all of the dangers of scuba diving, I just wanted the thrill of diving. Nope, I didn’t think that a bad regulator can result in drowning. Or that a rapid ascent to the surface of the water can make my lungs swell and pop like a balloon. Or that oxygen toxicity can happen below 135 ft causing seizures.

Now I can know what most adults are thinking right now…typical teen behaviour…risk-taker, thrill-seeker, lack of good judgement…right?

Good evening everyone! I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Ashbury TEDx community for inviting me to speak on: The Rebellious Teen – is it impulsive behaviour or is there a neuroscientific explanation?

As a teenager, I feel like I am entering uncharted waters. There are so many unknowns that I have to sail through before adulthood. In this talk I want to share what I have learned about the neuroscience of the teenage brain, share the links from these findings to our behaviour, and share some tips I found useful for teenagers and adults on how to navigate through these unstable waters.


Teenagers are constantly going under the stereotype of being impulsive, irrational, and moody. Adults throughout history have been complaining about the behaviour of young people. This dates back to the days of ancient Greek philosophers…

Socrates, another very well-known Ancient Greek philosopher said, “Children are tyrants […] They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers.”

Geez, I never thought I would be considered a tyrant for crossing my legs!

Even 400 years ago in Shakespeare’s times, he spoke about typical teens and their behaviours. And I quote: “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

Basically, what Shakespeare was trying to say is that teens should go into a hibernation period from age 10 and wake up when they turn 23! We are apparently no use to society between this period, as all we do (and this is according to Shakespeare) is harass our elders, steal and fight!

Thankfully, we live in the 21st century and reply more on science than sonnets and soliloquies to explain why things are the way they are. Don’t get me wrong, I actually happen to love Shakespeare, but…OMG Mr. Shakespeare, for real, teenagers are basically useless from 10-23 year of age? Come on!

Lucky for us, scientists wanted to study our mysterious brains. With the help of advanced neuroimaging tools, they have been able to look deep into the teenage brain and see what is really going on. So, are these just misconceptions, or do these observations have a biological explanation?


The brain is the most complex organ in the body…

Did you know that the human brain can actually generate about 23 watts of power…that’s enough to literally power a lightbulb! But here’s the catch, the human brain isn’t fully formed until the age of 25.

Research has found that adult and teen brains work very differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex.  Think of the prefrontal cortex as the CEO of the brain. This is the part involved in planning, strategizing and responding to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. This is why my dad was able to think of all the risk of diving on my behalf!

Teens process information with the amygdala, which is part of the brain’s limbic system. This is the emotional part of the brain which controls fear, aggression, and excitement. While the frontal cortex is still under development, the teenage brain relies heavily on the amygdala. This explains why I was so consumed with the thrill of scuba diving as less concerned with the risks!

Many published studies prove that teenage actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex. Studies have also shown that drug and alcohol use can delay these significant changes in the teenage brain.

So, to all teenagers listening tonight, stay out of drugs and alcohol, it’s not good for the development of your frontal cortex…actually, it simply isn’t good for our development PERIOD!

All that being said, this does not mean that teenagers do not know the difference between right and wrong, and that they should not be held accountable for their actions. It is just important for adults to understand the uncontrollable changes that we are going through.

How can adults and teenagers work together?

The Stanford Children’s hospital suggests that the following small actions can have a huge impact on teenagers…I found these tips to be helpful and I shared with my parents:

  • Discussing the consequences of our actions can help us link impulsive thinking with facts.
  • Reminding us that we’re resilient and competent. Because we are so focused in the moment, we have trouble seeing that we can play a part in changing bad situations.
  • Become familiar with things that are important to us. I’m still trying to get my parents to understand the rules of Magic: The Gathering Card Game but it’s hopeless. Thanks for trying Mom & Dad! I appreciate it.
  • Ask teens if they want you to respond when they come to you with problems, or if they just want you to listen.

Conclusion: Hopefully I have been able to convince you that the difference in the teenage behaviour has a biological explanation. The teenage brain is actually wired differently than the adult brain. At the end, I listened to my dad and was very prepared to dive 60 feet under water after completing all the pre-dive preparation and I passed! I wanted to thank my parents, coaches, and teachers for their patience with me as my brain navigates these uncharted waters from teenager to adulthood.

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