“What was he thinking? Is this really my child?!” Parents of teenagers can empathize when Frances Jensen describes her fifteen-year-old son’s hair dye disaster. Her “sweet-natured firstborn son had suddenly become unfamiliar and unpredictable.” Jensen was baffled, but as a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, she had an edge in understanding his impulsive behavior and questionable decisions. A few years later, she published The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist\’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults to help other parents who find themselves in a similar state of panic.
The upshot? Brain science has evolved fast in the past few decades. Researchers now know a lot about what’s going on inside the brains of teenagers, but you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to understand the basics. Here are five facts about the teenage brain that all parents should keep in mind:
The teenage brain is still developing. One of the last regions of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, prioritizing, and impulse control. The brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, so when teenagers demonstrate risky behavior or poor judgment, it’s not a failure on their parents’ part. Teens really are less capable of thinking through the consequences of their actions and planning for outcomes. Each time teens learn from a mistake; they strengthen their reasoning skills. And when parents help teens map out a plan, consider possible results, and make a decision, it lays the neural foundation for a lifetime of good judgment.
The teenage brain is more emotional. What causes teen drama and mood swings? Because their frontal brains are still developing, teens rely more on the limbic brain to make decisions. The limbic brain, especially the amygdala, is associated with emotions, impulses, and the fight-or-flight stress response. Psychologist Marwa Azab says, “During the teen years, it helps to think of the amygdala as the ‘gossiper.’ It loves to spread bad news and rumors… So, a teen might end up misperceiving a benign ‘hello’ as ‘I am watching you’ or ‘I noticed that pimple.’\” Until the prefrontal cortex develops to help them keep fears and impulses in check, teens are more likely to experience intense emotions–especially in response to stress.
The teenage brain is packed with potential. Around puberty, teens experience a big boost in neuroplasticity. Their brains are rapidly changing in response to their environment, and all that plasticity means potential. Research shows that brain processing and memory-forming power peak at age 18. Challenging, stimulating experiences make a lasting impression on the teenage brain, so it\’s the perfect time to learn or perfect language, music, academic, and athletic skills. Teens are also primed to benefit from experiences that expand the way they see the world and their place in it, like travel, volunteering, after-school jobs, and summer internships. But Psychologist Laurence Steinberg says it’s important to remember that “puberty makes the brain more sensitive to all sorts of environmental influences, both good and bad,” so parents still have a major role to play in protecting their teens from negative influences.
The teenage brain is more vulnerable to stress. Adolescence is one of life’s biggest transitions, bringing neurological, physical, social, and emotional changes. This makes teens more vulnerable to stress and mental health problems. Many mental health disorders—including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and self-harm—are more likely to emerge during the teenage years. And according to the CDC, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the mental health of teens to take a dramatic downturn. Parents can help by sharing strategies for stress reduction, like mindfulness, deep breathing, and talking openly about hard things. Long-term healthy habits, like managing social media time and getting enough sleep and exercise, also help teens keep stress in check.
The teenage brain is incredibly resilient. You–and your teen–may need a reminder from time to time, but they are strong, capable, and adaptable. As their brains are developing, teens are learning skills to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Every experience is creating new neural connections that build their brain’s capacity to handle life’s challenges. Strategies for self-regulation, social and emotional well-being, and growth mindset can have a profoundly positive impact on teens by helping them develop positive outlooks and habits. And while mistakes are inevitable, teens are perfectly poised to learn from their errors and bounce back.
Frances Jensen tells her readers that, despite the bad hair dye and countless other mishaps, she and her son made it through his teen years just fine. “Yes, you can survive your teenagers’ adolescence,” she says. “And so can they. And you will have a lot of stories to tell after it’s all over.”
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