An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

Is the Young Adult Brain Wired for Narcissism?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By the time we reach age 10, our brains have grown to their full size. But that doesn’t mean they’ve finished developing. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for weighing consequences vs. instant gratification, making thoughtful decisions, and managing emotions, doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s, and possibly even later. Moreover, the prefrontal cortex, in conjunction with other brain regions, is associated with feelings like empathy and compassion, which catalyze our desire to help others.

So if young adults sometimes seem just as impulsive and self-centered as teenagers, and don’t feel ready to be an adult at 21, can they blame it on their brains? Yes and no. While they’re hardwired to focus on building their own identity and autonomy, young adults aren’t held hostage by their immature brains. They can make choices that support both healthy brain development and pro-social behaviors, even if they have to work a little harder to do so.

The Power of the Prefrontal Cortex in Young Adults

The prefrontal cortex, the area behind the forehead, is the very last part of the brain to mature. The tasks undertaken by this powerful brain region are known as executive functioning, and include:

  • Calibration of risk vs. reward
  • Prioritizing competing information
  • Thinking ahead
  • Self-evaluation
  • Long-term planning
  • Emotion regulation
  • Complex decision-making
  • Impulse control
  • Focusing attention
  • The ability to ignore external distractions.

Studies also show that the prefrontal cortex is one of the major brain regions involved in human prosocial behavior—actions intended to help others. Thus, as a general rule, older adults may find it easier to access these emotions and engage in these types of behaviors. That doesn’t mean that young adults don’t have intense feelings of compassion and caring—their involvement in activism is proof that they do! It’s just that young adult brains are occupied with so many other tasks that these emotions aren’t always prioritized or translated into action.

The prefrontal part (of the brain) is the part that allows you to control your impulses, come up with a long-range strategy, and answer the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ That weighing of the future keeps changing into the 20s and 30s.

Dr. Jay Giedd
lead researcher, NIMH Human Brain Development in Health Study

The Young Adult Brain: Hardwired for Risk-Taking and Narcissism 

Because the still-maturing brain of adolescents and young adults is wired to focus on pleasure, novel experiences, and what others think of them, it’s naturally self-absorbed. However, the seemingly slow rate of young adult brain development may have an evolutionary purpose. Researchers theorize that teens’ and young adults’ tolerance for risk-taking supports them to dive into unknown situations and discover whether they are dangerous or rewarding. While this fearlessness allows young adults to expand their experiences and push out of their comfort zones, it also increases their vulnerability to self-destructive risk-taking, such as unsafe sexual behavior, unsafe driving, and substance abuse.

In addition, adolescents and young adults are more sensitive to peer pressure. That makes the likelihood of risk-taking higher if they’re in the presence of friends of the same age. As young adults reach the second half of their 20s, “there’s better communication between parts of the brain that process emotions and social information—like what people think of you—and the parts that are important for planning ahead and balancing risk and reward,” says developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, author of a study on the neuroscience of adolescent risk-taking.

The Impact of Trauma on the Young Adult Brain

Both nature and nurture influence young adult brain development. Hence, genetics plays a role along with events and circumstances during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Frequent and intense periods of stress—including physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, and exposure to violence—impair the development of neural connections in the brain.

As a result, childhood trauma impacts young adults on a neurobiological as well as an emotional level. Research has shown that trauma can obstruct emotional self-regulation and keep the amygdala (the part of the brain that’s linked to fear) in a state of activation. Individuals who suffer from trauma and PTSD are in a constant state of “fight or flight,” in which the stress response overrides the brain’s reasoning and decision-making capabilities. Consequently, this can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, relationships, and physical and mental health. 

Know the Facts

Before it fully matures, the brain is more vulnerable to stress- and trauma-related disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

5 Ways Young Adults Can Nurture Their Developing Brain

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change in response to experience. Hence, when young adults prioritize a particular behavior or choose to move on from a negative emotion rather than wallowing in it, they’re actually shaping their own young adult brain development. They’re creating synapses (connections made by cells in the brain and nervous system) that support stronger functioning in certain areas.

Here are five ways young adults can build brain strength in the areas that support well-being and mutually supportive relationships with others. Some young people may need the assistance of parents, mentors, and/or life skills programs in order to establish these healthy habits and develop a toolkit for resilience, critical thinking, and caring for others.

Set goals and follow through. Setting achievable goals and creating a step-by-step plan to reach those goals helps young adults develop impulse control and time management skills. Whether they’re writing a term paper or job hunting, having both short- and long-term goals and plans in place makes it easier to focus on moving forward while staying motivated and organized.

Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, conscious breathing, and yoga, work on a neurobiological level by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response. At the same time, mindful practices help to calm a young adult’s busy mind, increasing clarity and focus. Meditation is also proven to enhance empathy, compassion, and pro-social behaviors.

Develop self-compassion. In order to have compassion for others, we must first have compassion for ourselves. While it may seem counterintuitive, a foundation of self-compassion makes it easier for young adults to understand, accept, and connect with others, and to grow their awareness of others’ needs and desires. Extensive research conducted with young adults shows self-compassion is directly associated with increased social connectedness and decreased self-criticism, depression, and anxiety.

Build healthy coping mechanisms. When young adults learn to recognize the triggers that set off impulsive behavior, unhealthy risk-taking, and narcissistic spirals, they’re better equipped to avoid these obstacles to well-being. Once they know what prompts unhelpful and unhealthy emotions and behaviors, the next step is building a set of positive coping mechanisms. This can include simple breathing practices, visualization, affirmations, and creative activities like journaling and making art or music.

Do things for others. Research shows that helping others improves our mental health and happiness levels—it literally generates endorphins in the brain, producing what’s known as a “helper’s high.” Helping others informally or finding a volunteering opportunity that fits their interests can also increase a young adult’s sense of meaning and purpose and enhance their feeling of being part of a larger community.

Ultimately, mental health is inextricably entwined with young adult brain development and executive functioning. Therefore, it’s crucial for young adults who are struggling to receive support in building self-regulation skills and pro-social behaviors as part of their journey of healing from mental health challenges. To learn more about how Newport Institute helps young adults strengthen executive function, motivation, and interpersonal relationships, contact our Admissions experts today.


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Mental Health / June 25, 2021

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