The Teenage Brain: 2 Things to Know About It and 4 Things You Can Do to Support its Growth
Samuel had always been a calm, quiet kid—a little shy and reluctant to engage, but a lovely person once you got to know him. Sam seemed to have made the transition into high school well. He was studying and even had a couple of new friends. Then one day, his mom got a call saying Sam had broken his leg after jumping from his second story classroom into a nearby tree.
His parents were shocked! “What were you thinking?” They asked him.
Sam responded with quiet “I don’t know.”
Teens often make strange decisions, especially when surrounded by their peers. Sometimes this high-risk behavior is puzzling to parents and teachers. Shouldn’t he know better? How did he think that was going to go?
Teens are actually predisposed to risky behaviors because of the development stage of their brains. Here are some things to know about teen brain development and what parents can do to support their children through this unique growth process.
Two main things to know about the teenage brain and its development are:
1. The prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped
The prefrontal cortex is basically what separates humans from animals. It allows us to project into the future and perceive the possible consequences of different behaviors. This allows us to delay gratification for a long-term goal instead of being impulsive.
Developing this perception is a long process. Connections have to be grown from the different parts of the brain to the prefrontal cortex so we can take advantage of this higher order thinking. When we are little, we have few connections, leading to all of the silly decisions, questions, and actions of childhood. As we grow up, we develop more connections and our ability to resist impulse and think first gets better and better until we are adults.
The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until humans are in their 20’s. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t function until then.
According to the study titled “The Teenage Brain: Peer Influences on Adolescent Decision Making” (Albert, Chein, & Steinburg, 2013), teenagers had similar risk-taking behavior to adults when tested alone in the experiment. However, when there was a peer in the room, the teenagers’ risk-taking doubled. This means teens are definitely capable of understanding and weighing the consequences of their behavior, but when around peers, something changes.
At first glance, one would think it is the fault of an immature prefrontal cortex since that’s what leads adults to generally good decisions. Yet, teens appear fully capable when not around their peers.
Another component that clears the prefrontal cortex of guilt is the difference between the behavior of children and the behavior of adolescents. According to “The Adolescent Brain” (Casey, Jones, & Hare, 2008), immaturity of prefrontal cortex can’t be the only reason adolescents are so emotional and tend to make risky choices. If an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex were to blame, then children who have less developed prefrontal cortex should exhibit behavior that is similar or worse than adolescents. As we know, adolescent behavior is comparatively unique.
To sum it up, children are impulsive, while teens are emotional.
So what leads teenagers to make these... less-than-optimal, emotional decisions? Studies suggest that it has to do with the limbic system.
2. The limbic system is almost fully mature
The limbic system governs our instinctive reactions. It is connected to the amygdala which is also the emotional center of our brains. It is the part of our brain that we have in common with most animals. This is the deepest part of our brain and incredibly powerful. It has kept us alive throughout our species’ history. This is the system that is either fully mature or nearly so by the teenage years.
The early maturation of this system does make a certain amount of sense. Casey et al. 2008 theorizes the uneven development of our prefrontal cortex system and the limbic system in combination with physical maturation would be the perfect recipe for encouraging newly-grown humans to become independent adults.
“One needs to engage in high-risk behavior in order to leave the family and village to find a mate. This risk behavior occurs simultaneously with an increase in sexual hormones, resulting in adolescents seeking sexual partners and is seen in other species. In conjunction with this novelty-seeking behavior, there would need to be some mechanism for detecting cues of safety
or danger. The increase in emotional reactivity during this period may allow adolescents to be more vigilant and aware of threat, to ensure their survival as they move from a safe environment to a novel one” (Casey et al. 2008).
Since the limbic system matures first, it is quite a bit stronger than the prefrontal cortex. The early maturity of the powerful limbic system leads researchers to believe that, while teens are able to reason, when they are in highly emotional circumstances, their ability to reason is hijacked by the other, stronger, and more developed areas of their brains.
Casey et al. 2008 says, “According to our model, in emotionally salient situations, the more mature limbic system will win over the prefrontal control system. In other words, when a poor decision is made in an emotional context, the adolescent may know better, but the salience of the emotional context biases his or her behavior in opposite direction of the optimal action.”
Still, this does not explain why it is among their peers in particular that teens are prone to their worst decisions. As teens grow, they develop oxytocin receptors in their amygdalae. Oxytocin is the chemical which is linked to social bonding and a closer attention to positive social stimuli. This means that the emotional centers teens’ brains develop major social connecting abilities and a sensitivity to positive social cues.
If the powerful, emotional centers in the teen brain are suddenly hypersensitive to positive social cues, then it is no surprise that the weaker, underdeveloped prefrontal cortex gets bypassed when teens are among their peers.
Albert et al. 2013 says, “In brief, we propose that, among adolescents more than adults, the presence of peers “primes” a reward-sensitive motivational state that increases the subjective value of immediately available rewards and thereby increases preferences for the short-term benefits of risky choices over the long-term value of safe alternatives.”
When you know what your teens are going through and the developmental stage they are in, it helps make sense of behaviors that are generally confounding.
This is interesting, no doubt, but parents’ next question is bound to be: what can we do? It’s not like we can keep our teens away from the world until they are smart enough to deal with it.
Great point! There are things you can do to help your teens develop in the right direction as well as be proactive about the problems they are likely to face.
Here are 4 ideas to help you through.
1. Introduce consequences for choices
Boundaries are important, and during this time, teens are ready to become more independent. It’s the step before adulthood, and as parents, you do want them to be ready. However, there may be disputes as to how much independence teens have shown themselves to be capable of.
Instead of “laying down the law,” try constructing your boundaries by introducing consequences for your teen’s choices. Talk them through the natural consequences for their behavior in small things at home, then stick to those consequences. You can even allow for negotiation when you are deciding consequences for different behaviors. Let your teen be a part of the discussion. When teens get a say, they are more likely to abide by what happens.
When teens get to practice their actions resulting in consequences, it trains them to access their prefrontal cortex regularly and begins to strengthen that system. The more they can connect actions with consequences, the more they will learn to think things through like adults do, instead of submitting to emotional decisions.
While you’re at it, talk to your teens about the stage of life they are in. Teens aren’t dumb and they are capable of thinking. They don’t want to mess up their lives any more than you. When they understand what you are trying to help them practice, they will be more open to working with you.
2. Allow some (safe) risks
As much as locking a teen in a box for a few years feels like a good idea, we know that too much protection will result in an incapable adult. Since teens are looking for ways to do things differently and independently, instead of blocking bad behavior, try giving them the option of healthy risk taking.
Maybe your teen is a physically active kid, like Sam. Look into parkour acrobatics or rock climbing to give him a safer outlet for those inclinations and to connect him to a group of people who do those activities safely.
Perhaps your teen is a romantic and desperate to look good. Introduce her to classic fashion design and makeup tutorials then teach her how to throw a cool party (at your house) to show off her skills.
When teens have an outlet for risk taking and are learning which risks should be avoided, they are less likely to be foolish at other times.
3. Be a role model for self-control
Keep your cool and demonstrate how adults handle their emotions, negotiate and accept consequences, and take the time to think things through. We have equally strong emotions from an equally powerful limbic system, but we have learned to temper it all with rational thought, courtesy of our fully-developed prefrontal cortex. This is what your teens are learning, so do your best to show them how.
Mention your thought process in a decision at the dinner table and say what happened. Talk about your struggles with your own emotions and how you handle them. Ask your teen’s opinion about what else you could do or could have done.
Try making a game of it by spinning different scenarios presenting different problems. Either everyone can come up with their own solutions or you can have one person come up with a good solution to the problem, one person come up with a bad solution, and one person come up with the worst solution possible. Have a little fun!
4. Stay connected
Teens do want to develop their own lives and should be allowed to do so. They need to learn how to live apart from their parents. However, this doesn’t mean they want to be or should be completely disconnected from you.
Engage with them about their day and about their struggles, silly as they may seem. Show them you care about the things they care about. Encourage them and remind them that they are competent and capable of managing their own lives.
School and college prep are big parts of a teen’s life. It’s hard to know if things are getting overwhelming if you aren’t consistently keeping up with your teen. High school is hard, and sometimes teens do need help. You can teach them how to better manage their schedules or show them how to contact a tutoring service like Spark Tutors for academic support and development.
Throughout the difficulties presented during this time, remember that you are in the last stage of your life as a child-dependent parent. Your child is almost independent of you, but still needs your guidance in order to learn to be a fully competent adult. We at Spark Tutors are privileged to accompany you and your teen in this final part of your journey by helping your teen to take steps toward his or her academic independence and success. We can’t wait for who your teens will become and how each will impact the world! For further reading, check out Brain Development in Pre-Teens and Teenagers from Raisingchildren.net.au and Understanding the Teenage Brain from University of Rochester Medical Center.
We hope this article has granted parents some insight into the physical development of their teens’ brains as well as some ideas on how to work with your teens in their progressive growth into confident, capable adults. Remember how important you continue to be to your teens as you teach them in this final stage. Finish strong! We’ll see you at the tutoring table!