The Adolescent Brain

Parents need to realize the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until he or she is 25 years old or so.

–Jana Martin, Ph.D., psychologist and spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association

Science is unraveling the biological reasons that teens act like teens. Recent research has found adult and teen brains work differently. Their brains are wired in a way that floods them with emotional responses to external events. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part, but teens process information with the amygdala, the emotional part. The amygdala is part of the limbic system of the brain, which is fully functioning and utilized by age 13-14 years. The prefrontal cortex fully develops between the ages of 18-21.

What does this mean?

The differences in adolescent and adult brains may account for (not excuse) some of the mood swings, impulsiveness, risk-taking, defiance, aggression, and alcohol/drug and sexual experimentation that may characterize adolescence.

Because their brain’s wiring is still in process, adolescents may have special problems setting goals, establishing priorities, planning, organizing, and controlling impulses. They may have serious difficulties seeing the long-term consequences of their short-term behaviors or evaluating risks.

Understanding your teenager’s still developing brain may help you release some of your hurt, resentment, and confusion. It may also help you to distinguish between what’s normal and the warning signs that may require further investigation on your part.

Signs that your teen might be dealing with a problem such as alcohol or drug dependence, depression or anxiety, eating disorders, or a learning disability include:

  • Change in behavior
  • Change in friends
  • Change in school performance
  • Change in interest or loss of interest
  • Change in others concern
  • Change in ability to communicate

What can I do to help my teen?

Implement the following strategies to more easily negotiate the difficult terrain of the teen years:

  • Discuss consequences. Help your teen link impulsive thinking with facts by talking with him/her about possible consequences of his/her actions. Doing so helps teen brains make these connections and can actually wire their brains to make this link more often.
  • Remind your teen that he/she is resilient and competent. Because teens are so focused in the moment, they have trouble seeing that they can play a part in changing bad situations. Reminding them of instances in the past they thought would be devastating but turned out for the best can help.
  • Say what you mean. Another biological difference in a teenager’s brain makes them more likely to misread facial expressions. This could explain and potentially cause problems in interpersonal relationships, especially between parents and their teens. If you don’t explicitly tell your teen what you’re feeling and wanting, he/she will most likely guess wrong.
  • Help your teen get enough sleep. Have you ever wondered why your child loves to sleep in and why they can be so grumpy when they leave for school? It’s because most teenagers suffer from sleep deprivation. The average teenager needs nine hours and 15 minutes of sleep each night to be optimally efficient, but only gets seven and a half hours. Each day compounds the cumulative sleep deprivation deficit. This affects their mood, ability to think and ability to make healthy choices.

If you recognize one of the warning signs in your teen that may be indicative of a problem, seek the advice of a school-based or private counselor about steps to take to help your teen. For information on counseling resources in your area, click here.