The Teenage Brain: 2 Things to Know and 4 Things You Can Do to Support 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 is the reasoning, thinking part of our brains. 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 area of our brains is a long process. Connections have to be grown from the different parts of the brain to this reasoning part so we can take advantage of this higher 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.
This reasoning area doesn’t fully mature until humans are in their 20’s. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t function until then.
What is Going On in Teen’s Heads?
Two studies can help us understand our teenagers’ brains: “The Teenage Brain: Peer Influences on Adolescent Decision Making” (Albert, Chein, & Steinburg, 2013) and “The Adolescent Brain” (Casey, Jones, & Hare, 2008).
The first compared teens’ decision making to that of adults. They found that teens and adults basically made the same decisions and took the same risks—when alone. However, when teens had a friend in the room, the teens’ risk-taking doubled. This means teens are definitely capable of understanding and weighing the consequences of their behavior, just like adults, but when around peers, something changes.
When compared to the risks children take, teens outstrip them completely. This means that it isn’t that a teen’s reasoning ability is less developed. If it were, children (who have even less reason than teens) would exhibit higher risk behaviors.
Basically, these studies show that teens are emotional. They are able to reason, but when their peers are around, the weaker reasoning connections in the brain get overwhelmed by emotion.
So what leads teenagers to make these... less-than-optimal, emotional decisions? Studies suggest that it has to do with the limbic system.
2. Their Emotional Center Is Almost Fully Mature
The emotional center of the brain is called the amygdala. It is connected to the limbic system, which governs our instinctive reactions. This emotional center 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 maturing of the emotional system does make a certain amount of sense. Casey et al. 2008 says that throughout our history, teens had to take risks in order to become independent adults. They had to leave their families, maybe even their villages in order to find a mate and become a mature, productive member of a tribe.
With these higher risks would come danger, so heightened emotional sensitivity would help teens keep themselves safe.
Since the emotional center matures first and because it is deeper in the brain, it is quite a bit stronger than the reasoning area. This leads researchers to believe that, while teens are able to reason, when they are in highly emotional circumstances, their ability to think logically is hijacked by the more developed, emotional areas of their brains.
But Why Their Peers?
Why is it among their peers in particular that teens are prone to their worst decisions? As teens grow, they develop special receptors in the emotional centers of their brains. These receptors are for a chemical called oxytocin. It 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.
What To Do?
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 four 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 reasoning 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; they are capable of thinking. They don’t want to mess up their lives either. 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 some options of healthy risk taking.
Maybe your teen is a physically active kid, like Sam. Look into kickboxing 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 emotional center, but we have learned to temper it all with rational thought, courtesy of our fully-developed reason. 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 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 to you. 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 given 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!