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The teenage brain, thinking and depression

We tend to easily notice how children develop physically on the outside – every year they need new clothes and shoes, and our photographs provide clear evidence of their many changes. We also see children become smarter, and how their schoolwork gets more difficult and more demanding. However, it’s much less easy to see how things change on the inside, in their brains.

Let’s return to the TED talk by Professor Sarah Jane Blakemore we shared in Week 1, to remind us of some of the key changes in teenagers’ brains and how these changes impact on their behaviours.

Thinking and understanding

As we develop from childhood to adulthood our thinking abilities develop and improve. As seen in the TED talk, changes in thinking and understanding during adolescence are linked to major changes in brain structure, in particular in the front of the brain – the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that develops slowly and continues to mature throughout the teenager’s years. As they grow older and their brain becomes more mature, teenagers become much better at planning, thinking about the future, organising themselves, making judgments, and maintaining their attention and focus on tasks. This is the kind of thinking that Daniel Kahnmann referred to as ‘slow’ thinking.

The social world

Teenagers are also highly tuned to pay attention to other people. The social world of teenagers – their friendships and relationships – become much more important. Teenagers become more sensitive to cues from other young people about being accepted, rejected, liked or disliked. Teenagers are especially sensitive to being excluded or ridiculed by friends, being bullied or being singled out for negative attention of any kind. They ‘re also still learning how to work out what other people are thinking and feeling, so might make more mistakes than adults.


Teenagers are highly sensitive to emotions, including their responsiveness to rewards. Rewards include praise from parents or teachers, success in sports or other activities, and social activities with friends. In addition, adolescents in most societies have increased access to other forms of reward including those with significant risk, such as smoking, drinking, taking drugs and driving fast.

Have you noticed any of these changes in the young people you know, or in your son or daughter? How do you think they might be related to depression in young people? Share your thoughts below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People

University of Reading