Dopamine - the reward center - what you need to know

it's 2am and she gets the text "meet me at the corner." It's from HIM!?!  The guy she has crushed on for a few weeks.  They have passed by each other at school and have sent a few texts here and there but now he wants to meet up.  She just wants to talk to him... face to face. He is soooo cute. She gets a surge of butterflies.  She is excited.  Only problem is... it's 2am and her parents are sleeping.  She begins to plan how she could possibly make this work.  She realizes it's probably not the best idea and her parents will not be OK with it. She rationalizes to herself that she really isn't very tired and they are just going to stay at the corner and talk. She could never get this time with him at school. NBD...

As a parent, you are probably reading this and thinking this is a nightmare!  Why in the world would she think this is a good idea??  I would kill her if she did this.  How could she not see this is dangerous for a host of reasons?

There are so many factors at play in this scenario (which is more common then you want to know) but one of the main players is

Dopamine - a neurotransmitter that we all have.

The teen brain is loaded with it.  Her brain reacts and responds with Dopamine at significantly higher levels then an adult.  If you get excited and motivated to go to your favorite concert she would get amp'd 2+x more just because she is a teen.

Because she gets so amp'd at the possibility of something exciting she is more likely to over-rule the risks.  The reward is so much greater to her.  That increased drive for reward (remember it is much greater then yours) causes more impulsivity.

She will make decisions based on the pleasure feelings she is getting from the Dopamine charge.  It's party time!! She feels alive when the Dopamine kicks in. Remember the saying "if it feels good do it"? In the teen years this philosophy rules and it explains why they make so many impulsive decisions that often lead you scratching your head trying to figure out what she was thinking.


Boredom is a common teen complaint.  Dopamine is partially to blame.  Because she feels the Dopamine high at a greater level, she feels boredom at a greater level as well. This also explains why teens are constantly chasing new experiences and doing risky things.  They want to Dopamine charge and they want to avoid feeling bored.

Remember, this system is developing.  It's growing and changing.  She needs to go through this time, making mistakes and learning from them.  Sure, you want to keep her safe and set boundaries but she really needs to experience natural consequences as much as possible so she can strengthen the parts of her brain that will put the breaks on the Dopamine. 

The system that helps with impulsivity is just starting to strengthen and with trial and time will get firmer. This is called cognitive control - when the pre-frontal cortex of her brain begins to take shape.

a word of caution

You might be starting to think about some of the real dangers associated with dopamine sensitivity at this age and you would be correct.  The teen years are ripe for developing addictions.  Because the brain is in rapid change and the Dopamine system is in high gear, introducing things like alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, gaming, etc... is extremely risky.  

Most people who struggle with lifetime addiction will tell you they started in the teen years.  This is certainly something to watch and openly discuss with her. 

The more you educate yourself about these developmental stages, the more you can help her understand why she is making choices that seem incredibly dumb.  

Stayed tuned... I will keep covering these systems to help you understand where she is at and how to manage your expectations about her.