Understanding Your Teen’s Brain

By Dana L. Helmreich, Ph.D

Most parents are so mesmerized by their baby, toddler and child, they don’t know what to do when they get to the teenage years. That’s because as parents, we’re told how critical brain development is in early childhood. However, there is another important developmental stage—Adolescence.

We’re encouraged to help our young children’s brains develop fully: We read, sing and play with them, doing our part to aid in their healthy development.

Now, your darling teenager’s brain is going through a dramatic period of brain development and refinement, and we’re here to help you understand what’s going on inside their head.

Actor Michael J. Fox once said,

Teenagers blithely skip off to uncertain futures, while their parents sit weeping curbside in the Volvo, because the adolescent brain isn’t yet formed enough to recognize and evaluate risk.

Many parents have described adolescence this way: Somewhere between the ages of 10-13 your child is lured outside by pretty lights and sounds. Once outside, the “Mothership” sucks your child up and replaces them with an “Alien Clone.”

This “Clone” looks and sounds like your child but behaves NOTHING like your child. This new “Alien Child” requires us as parents to tune into them in a new way, to understand them and help them through this period of development.

Get Inside Your Teen’s Brain

To understand what is happening in our teenagers’ brains, we need to first know a few things about your teen’s developing brain.

  • The brainstem is responsible for our bodily functions, including heartrate, respiration and digestion.
  • The cortex is the thinking part of the brain. It is the bumpy, curvy, outside layer of the brain and is responsible for executive functions (planning, attention control and problem solving), language and self-awareness.
  • Regions under the cortex are thought to be more reactive, less thinking. These regions include the amygdala, often considered the alarm center, and the basal ganglia. One job of the basal ganglia is to signal positive rewards (I’ll do that again!) to ensure survival—this usually responds to food, friends and money.

Also, know that the brain is constantly remodeling and reshaping. This process is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is occurring all the time, but adolescence is a period of dramatic changes.

During adolescence, the brain your teen grew during childhood is being molded, shaped and refined. Connections and pathways that are used frequently become stronger and faster; less-used connections become slower, weaker. But this does not occur at the same time in all brain regions.

The brainstem and reactive parts of the brain are almost fully mature in adolescence—they are strong, fast and powerful. However, imaging studies have shown that the cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning and executive function, do not become fully mature until we are 20-25 years old.

How to Survive These Teen Years

The timing of all of these changes can lead to adolescent brain and behavior that act as a car with all gas (reactive systems) and no brakes (thinking).

On top of that, our children’s bodies are physically mature. They LOOK like—and are often treated like—full grown adults! This can result in some risky behaviors and parental worry.

Here are a few survival tips for parents with teens:

  • First, remember that you are NOT a bad parent! Acting out is part of a developmental stage and your teen will grow through it.
  • Youth in this stage are seeking independence. They need to spread their wings. Give them as much freedom as you can, within the limits you feel comfortable with.
  • The key is to get your child to SLOW DOWN! Get them to think (don’t tell them what to do). Their cortex is still there, just not as strong, fast, or practiced as other regions of the brain.

Use these tips and information about your teen’s brain to help you through these sometimes challenging years.

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Dana L. Helmreich has a Ph.D in Behavioral Neuroscience. Melanie Funchess is the Director of Community Engagement for the Mental Health Association of Rochester/ Monroe County. Both live in Rochester NY and are living through the adolescence of their children right now!

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