Many discussions are taking place regarding the adverse effects the COVID-19 pandemic may have had on adolescent development. The discussions tend to veer toward the belief that the lack of interaction and lack of positive external input has stymied adolescent development. There is another factor that must be included in this discussion. That factor is the relevance of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

According to a publication titled “Mental Health By the Numbers” by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Youth and young adults experienced a unique set of challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic – isolation from peers, adapting to virtual learning, and changes to sleep habits and other routines.” They added that “We must recognize the significant impact of these experiences on young people’s mental health – and the importance of providing the education, care, and support they need.” Part of fully recognizing the adolescent experience is acknowledging the biological aspects that are involved. This recognition will help direct the efforts toward their recovery as well.

The still-developing brain of teenagers is a major contributor to their sometimes erratic and illogical behavior. A major player in this is the still-developing prefrontal cortex. This is why it can be crucial to get a teenager mental health help as soon as the warning signs begin to develop. In the still-developing adolescent brain, the potential for biological and cognitive harm is much greater than in adults.

Gaining a Better Understanding of Prefrontal Cortex Development

Located at the very front of the lobe, the prefrontal cortex plays a significant role in decision-making. This is why when it is negatively affected, it can lead to significant behavioral issues.

To further explain the importance of the prefrontal cortex, here is a list of tasks handled by this region of the brain:

  • Initiates and carries out new and goal-oriented practices of behavior
  • Helps sustain attention
  • Supports short-term memory tasks
  • Helps process information in real-time
  • Assists with active problem solving
  • Helps to regulate emotions
  • Aids in inhibitory control

This list makes it easy to understand the importance of the prefrontal cortex. It should also make it easier to understand risky adolescent behaviors in relation to the prefrontal cortex’s underdevelopment.

The Correlation Between the Prefrontal Cortex and Mental Health

Regarding the link between mental health and the prefrontal cortex, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America explains how the prefrontal cortex “has a prolonged development, which allows the acquisition of complex cognitive abilities through experience but makes it susceptible to factors that can lead to abnormal functioning, which is often manifested in neuropsychiatric disorders.” The key takeaway here regarding adolescent mental health is the “prolonged development.”

Because the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop, its development has a greater chance of being disrupted. These disruptions can happen from a number of external stimuli, such as drinking or , physical harm, and childhood trauma. A prime example of childhood trauma would be the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is for this reason that protecting the developing prefrontal cortex is crucial. However, the reality is that that is not always possible to do this. Fortunately, there are ways to detect whether your teenager is struggling with something that could affect their development down the road.

Protecting the Prefrontal Cortex During Brain Development

One of the biggest “red flags” of poor development is the out-of-character or excessive appearance of risky behavior. Now, it is not out of the ordinary for adolescents to engage in risky behavior. After all, that goes back to the discussion about the link between risks and the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.

However, this does not mean that a teenager should be wholly unable to regulate their behavior. When consistent poor decision-making happens, this can be a sign that something more significant is going on.

Unfortunately, there is also a cyclical situation that happens with risky behavior in adolescents. An underdeveloped prefrontal cortex can lead to poor decision-making, and some of those poor decisions can lead to future harm to the prefrontal cortex. It’s a double-edged sword. The good news is that there are effective treatments available that can help teenagers with their mental health and protect their still-developing prefrontal cortexes.

Treatment Options for Addressing Risky Adolescent Behaviors

The most important part of treating an adolescent who is engaging in risky behaviors is intervening in those behaviors. If you feel that your daughter is engaging in risky behaviors and putting themselves in dangerous situations, it may be time to step in and seek help.

After that intervention and a mental health assessment, numerous recovery options can promote healing and protect the prefrontal cortex from future dangers. Some great treatment options in this area are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and neurofeedback. These treatment modalities can help your daughter find the link between their thoughts and their actions. Once that happens, they can begin to correct the risky behaviors that those thoughts and emotions once produced.

According to NAMI, since the COVID-19 pandemic, “1 in five young people [reported] that the pandemic had a significant negative impact on their mental health.” That is a lot of danger-potential that is currently facing our kids. From what we now know about the prefrontal cortex, these impacts could also have long-lasting impacts on our children’s lives down the road. This makes it all the more important to get the help they need now.

The human brain is a complex organ. it’s one that doctors and scientists are learning something new about every day. However, there is an irrefutable fact that the human brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed until our mid-to-late 20s. It is also known that the prefrontal cortex is where a lot of our rational decision-making takes place. Because of this, teenagers sometimes make risky behavioral decisions that they would most likely not make if their brains were fully developed. Unfortunately, if those behaviors involve , this can create a vicious cycle because substances can further damage a developing brain. For more information, please call Clearview Girls Academy today at (888) 796-5484.