What You Need to Know About the Teenage Brain

Imagine you’re driving your car, peacefully going along, when all of a sudden you find yourself zigzagging down a winding road. Obstacles are flying at you at a record speed. Suddenly, you lose a muffler and your brakes and the steering wheel goes out.

This is a pretty good picture of what happens with the teenage brain! And as a parent, the earlier years may have been relatively calm, but your adolescent may place you on a wild ride—needing you to buckle your seat belt!

Thankfully, research and brain imaging over the last decade has helped us make sense of our adolescents’ confusing behavior. Research suggests that our teens aren’t intentionally being impulsive, forgetful, or acting like a two-year old. Their brains are simply under construction and in the process of being rewired.

It’s tempting to label adolescents as rude, impulsive, and challenging at times. We can worry or take our child’s behavior personally. However, by learning what’s happening in the adolescent brain, we can gain reassurance, understanding, and patience. We can also learn to use some tools that will help them navigate through this developmental process.

What You Need to Know About The Adolescent Brain and How You Can Help:

The teenage brain is being rewired. 

  • Adolescents are dealing with social, emotional, and cognitive changes that don’t fully develop until around 25 years of age.
  • Only about 80% of the teen brain is fully developed. There are what’s called synaptic connections that help to hard wire the brain that aren’t yet fully connected.
  • This explains their mood swings, irritability, impulsiveness, and their roller coaster emotions.

The connectivity of the brain moves from the back of the brain to the front. The last place to “hard wire” is the frontal lobe, which controls the “brakes and steering” and their impulse control.

This means:

  • They will make mistakes and not always connect cause with effect.
  • They may struggle to make rational decisions.
  • Risk-assessment is lacking. They may have limited impulse control.
  • They may struggle with executive functioning and their ability to focus.
  • They may be forgetful and have difficulties remembering to do something.

The prefrontal cortex is improperly balanced with the emotional part of their brains.

The prefrontal lobe is the thinking and CEO-center of the brain. It controls decision-making, problem-solving, judgment, and self-control.

  • They have a higher urgency and intensity of emotional reactions. They may be moody and fly off the handle at times.
  • A study showed that 50% of teenagers had trouble reading facial expressions, which led to miscommunication. They also discovered that adolescents may read your concern as anger.
  • They may react quickly from the emotional part of their brains due to the lack of development in the reasoning area of the brain.
  • They will have emotional highs and lows.
  • Sometimes they may find it difficult to have empathy.

What can we do to help them through this developmental process?

Keep communication open.

Strive first and foremost to keep the lines of communication open and stay calm. Listen to what they have to say and how they are feeling. Remember to practice patience during the process. Give them some grace while still holding them accountable. Don’t nag, lecture, or criticize. Be the kind of person that you want your child to be.

Remind them to think first.

As much as we hate to be doomsayers, we need to share stories with them of what can happen when they don’t link cause with effect. They may get sick of it, but we need to remind them what the costs of risky behavior can be. 

Hold them accountable to be responsible.

  • Repetition is important to our teenager’s brain development. If they don’t put something away, continue to remind them. Have them follow through and complete a task.
  • Their over-active brains struggle to set limits. As the parent, you can teach them to become self-disciplined by setting the amount of time for certain activities such as time on the phone or internet.
  • Avoid overwhelming your child with instructions. Instead, give them one or two instructions and write it down for them.
  • Rather than criticizing them if they forget to do something, encourage them to develop skills that will strengthen this part of their brain.

Frances Jensen, M.D., the author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, recommends using the mantra, “One thing at a time.” She says, “Although they look as though they can multitask, in truth they’re not very good at it. Even just encouraging them to stop and think about what they need to do and when they need to do it will help increase blood flow to the areas of the brain involved in multitasking and slowly strengthen them. This goes for giving instructions and directions, too.”

Make sure they get enough sleep.

  • Adolescents need 9-12 hours of sleep per night to function at their best.
  • Lack of sleep affects emotional regulation and impairs decision-making, which no adolescent needs
  • Chronic sleep deprivation in adolescents lessens the brain’s ability to learn new information and can lead to depression and aggression.
  • Researchers have found that sleep problems are not a side effect of teen depression, but rather a cause.

Help them to think ahead.

Don’t try to control your child. Instead, start trusting them to think for themselves. Ask questions instead of giving instructions. Coach them through whatever it is that they think they need or want to do in any given situation. Get them to think proactively. If they are concerned about a decision or situation, invite them to practice thinking through some strategies of what they might do or say.

teenage brain developmentHave rules and consequences.

Sometimes, we will have to step in and be their brakes and steering wheels (frontal lobe) by setting rules, limits, and consequences.

Studies have shown that adolescents who rarely or have never experienced negative consequences for risky behavior are more likely to keep repeating similar behaviors. Thrill-seeking produces dopamine, the feel-good hormone, in the adolescent brain, which motivates them to repeat the behavior. The way the adolescent brain works makes them much more susceptible to addiction in comparison to the adult brain.

Encourage positive activities and experiences.

Help them to boost their feel-good hormone, dopamine, in positive ways. Encourage them to try new things—a new sport, academic pursuit, hobby, or a community or religious activity. Model pursuing your own interests and hobbies.

When we recognize these important brain changes, we are able to better navigate through these years with understanding and compassion, and recognize that our children are in the process of developing and learning. Remind yourself to stay connected and ask questions. Be understanding, but set limits at the same time. Help your child to follow through and learn to be self-disciplined about doing “one thing at a time.” Growth takes time for all of us. The more we work on these areas in our own lives, the more proficient we will be to model and support our children to follow suit.

Questions: Was this article helpful to better understanding your own adolescent’s behavior? What is one area that you would like to be an encouragement to your tween or teen?

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