Theories of adolescence

A few theorists have put together evidence from neurobiology and behaviour to create broader theories of adolescence.

The developmental mismatch theory of adolescence focuses on the relationship between the relatively matured limbic system and the maturing PFC. The theory states that risky, reward- and sensation-seeking behaviours are driven by the limbic system. Where in adults, impulses are subject to PFC top-down control, ensuring the completion of long-term goals, planning and inhibition, this is not yet available to adolescents. This theory is appealing in its simplicity; however many argue that this dichotomy between emotions and reasoning are not biologically accurate.

Crone and Dahl (2012) stated that too much emphasis has been put on the PFC’s inability to inhibit behaviours leading to undesirable consequences. They suggested that findings regarding cognitive control vary, and could therefore reflect a more flexible control system depending on the degree of engagement, rather than an unreliable control system. They suggested that when sufficiently motivated, adolescents are able to perform extremely well on cognitive tasks.

Adolescents appear to reach adults levels on cognitive tasks with no motivational/emotional content (‘cool tasks’) before they reach adult levels of performance on ‘hot tasks’ – those that require an integration of emotion and cognition. This suggests that while cognitive systems may be well-developed in adolescence, the integration between cognitive and emotional information may be still developing, since adolescents tend to give more weight to the emotional content of the task and therefore make different decisions to adults. Furthermore, performance on ‘hot’ tasks does not necessarily relate to performance on ‘cool’ tasks.


Click on the topics below to find out more about the science in the film.

Sleep      ***      Hormonal Changes      ***      Prefrontal Changes
Inhibitory Control      ***      Mental Time Travel      ***      Limbic Changes
Sensation Seeking       ***       Risk taking       ***       Social Development
Theories of Adolescence      ***     Evolution      ***      Mental Health
Neuroconstructivism      ***     Educational Neuroscience


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