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Pub talk will try to unravel the mystery of the teenage brain

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Posted April 30, 2019

The teenage brain remains a mystery for parents. Adapting to seemingly overnight changes in moods and behaviors in their kids can leave them searching for answers.

UO psychology professor Jennifer Pfeifer holds the keys to solving some of those puzzles of teenage behavior. After studying the adolescent brain for more than a decade, Pfeifer says there is a method to this perceived madness, and the brain is doing exactly what it should be doing — preparing teens to survive on their own.

Upset face. Image credit: Max Pixel, CC0 Public Domain

Upset face. Image credit: Max Pixel, CC0 Public Domain

“The essential roles of the adolescent brain are twofold: to help a teenager learn about who they are and what is important to them, and to drive them to make social connections with others, especially people who aren’t in their immediate family,” Pfeifer said.

Pfeifer said she hopes the talk can help people change the way they think about the adolescent brain.

Adolescence begins with a biological bang: changes in the brain and body related to puberty, which can start as early as 9 or 10 years of age. It lasts well over a decade and ends when a young person would be able to assume the roles and responsibilities of adult society. The result is nearly two decades of neural, psychological and interpersonal flux.

“Teens are being exposed to new things in a lot of different contexts,” Pfeifer said. “Their brain is motivating them to seek and try out these unknowns, and it’s also helping them learn from those experiences.”

Part of that includes expanding their social connections. While it may feel like peers start replacing parents, she said that’s not the case. Peers actually partner with parents to prepare adolescents for what’s next.

“Taking risks and trying something you don’t know or aren’t good at is always your brain’s way of learning how to survive the next phase of life,” Pfeifer said. “The task of adolescence is to explore things that can feel like a risk: making new friends, trying new hobbies, discovering what you like to listen to, read or wear.

“These relationships, skills and preferences can become core to their identity and life’s work. It’s important for adolescents to have the opportunity to explore and learn about these things while they still have a safety net around them to catch them if they stumble.”

Pfeifer’s fascination with the adolescent brain began in college and launched her into a career in developmental cognitive neuroscience. She studies the relationship between brain development and adolescent well-being, including mental health and risk behaviors, with an emphasis on the role of social contexts and self-development.

Pfeifer is director of the Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab. She also serves on the board of the Center for the Developing Adolescent.

During her talk, Pfeifer will “translate” what is changing in the brains and social worlds of adolescents, to help parents better understand and support their teenagers in taking healthy risks that prepare them for adulthood.

Source: University of Oregon

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