Unlocking the Teenage Brain

Posted on 21 Feb 2017

Raising Teenagers

This content has been clinically reviewed by Thomas Burns, PsyD, ABPP/CN

Mood changes. Quick tempers. The famous door-slamming sulk.

Raising a teenager presents a unique set of challenges. But it turns out that much (though not all) of how your teen is acting and behaving can be attributed to the changes that are still occurring inside their brain.

Understanding these changes can help you better navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of adolescence with your teenager, and may help you get to know them a little better, too.

The Teen Brain and How It Affects Your Child's Behavior

In recent years, scientists and researchers have made some pretty interesting findings in terms of what’s going on inside your teen’s brain – namely that it’s still under construction. Your child’s brain won’t look or reason like yours until they reach their early to mid-20s.

This is because adults primarily think and make decisions using the brain’s frontal cortex. This section of the brain handles self-control and sound judgement. It’s the rational part of the brain, the one that helps us decide if some behavior or action is too risky. The frontal cortex helps us see the long-term consequences of decisions, and guides us in navigating our impulses.  It’s also the part of the brain that takes the longest to mature.

The amygdala -- an almond-shaped mass of grey matter -- develops earlier, and is the part of the brain that teens primarily use to make decisions. It's responsible for immediate, gut reactions and feelings, such as fear or aggression. The amygdala also helps us interpret emotions and make decisions – which might help explain why adults more commonly decide things based on fact and logic, and teenagers rely on less-informed impulse. 

Taking the car without asking? Sneaking out to a party to drink with friends? Those loud outbursts, door slams and crying jags?  Much of this can, to some degree, be chalked up to the amygdala, a still-developing frontal cortex, more souped-up hormones and any number of underlying genetics.

Your child's brain won't look or reason like yours until she reaches her early to mid-20s.

Connecting and Communication with Your Teen

So what does this mean when it comes to communicating and connecting with your teenager? It may take a little (or a lot) of patience, but it’s definitely not impossible. Especially with the help of these tips:

  1. Be clear in your messaging. Teens have a harder time reading emotions and facial expressions than adults do, which often leads to miscommunication. When talking to or disciplining your teen, make sure you’re being clear and direct, but also compassionate and open if they seem to be having a hard time understanding where you’re coming from.  Make your boundaries clear, and be firm on the consequences you have in place for crossing them.
  2. Withhold judgement and offer understanding and support – even when it gets tough. No matter how mature your child may seem, how well they’re doing in school or how responsible they are with their chores, they simply don’t have the biological tools yet to fully understand things like risk and consequence. They don’t make judgement calls the way that you do, and probably won’t until around the age of 25. Your teen may not make it easy, but work to make sure they feel like they can come to you with a problem, issue or mistake without fear of judgement. Keep the lines of communication open, too, even when your teen seems to want them closed.
  3. Ask and listen. We grown-ups do a lot of talking at our kids, maybe without even realizing it. When appropriate, simply sit back and listen, then ask engaging questions that make them feel like you’re genuinely interested not only in their problems, but also their perspective on the problem.
  4. Cut back on emotionality. Teens are going to make mistakes, sometimes big ones like underage drinking, lying about where they are or skipping class. But responding to these mistakes in a way that's reactionary and emotional isn’t going to get you very far with your highly-emotional teen. Stick to what the adult brain does best – rationality. Remember that while he may have made a bad call, part of that is due to the fact that he’s still working on developing the skills needed to make a good one. Keep in mind, too, that his mistakes aren’t a reflection of your parenting – you’re up against hormones and biology, and raising him is no easy feat.
  5. Go easy on yourself. At the end of the day, raising a teenager is tough. Sometimes it can feel like you’re miles apart from each other. Just take each day as it comes, and do your best to offer guidance, boundaries, love, compassion and discipline. And on the days it gets a little messy, remember that you were a teen once, too, and you’re both doing the best you can.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.