5 Things Every Parent Should Know About the Teenage Brain

Your teen's brain won't be fully developed until he's in his 20s

Your teen's brain may keep him from calculating risk accurately.
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Ever wonder what on earth is going on in a teen’s brain? Anyone raising a teen has likely asked themselves, "What is my teen thinking?" at some point or another.

The teen years lend themselves to some questionable behavior and unstable moods, much of which stems from your teen's ongoing brain development. Understanding your teen's developing brain can give you insight into what's going on with your child over the years.

1. The Teen Brain is Making Lots of New Connections

Right before your child becomes a full-fledged teenager, there’s a burst of neuronal sprouting or, in layman’s terms, creation of new connections in the brain. Researchers have known for a long time that infants have this same burst of connection creation, which helps them learn skills such as rolling, holding a fork or building a house of blocks. 

If you think about all the things that pre-teens are learning--such as social skills or new sports--it makes sense that their brain growth is similar to an infant’s. In fact, this is the second-most dramatic brain growth spurt a person will ever experience.

Areas of the brain develop at different rates. The parts of the brain responsible for controlling impulses and planning ahead are among the last areas to reach maturity.

2. The Teen Brain Leads to Emotional Outbursts

Did you think you were done with temper tantrums when your child outgrew toddlerhood?

There's a good chance you may see some teenage-sized tantrums emerge during adolescence.

Most teens don’t yet have the ability to cope with the social, emotional and cognitive fluctuations that accompany the changes in their brains. So don’t be surprised if you see irrational outbursts and dramatic portrayals of anger from time to time.


The truth is that the brain of a teenager matches the power of an adult’s in terms of intellectual power. However, teens engage a different part of the brain when it comes to impulse control and emotion; therefore, they’re more likely to be ruled by that emotion than an adult when it comes to social response.

Additionally, teens often misinterpret social cues and emotions. These communication problems, combined with dramatic mood swings, can be hard on your relationship if you’re not careful.

3. The Teen Brain Doesn't Accurately Calculate Risk

Driving fast, trying illicit substances, and cutting class are just a few of the risky behaviors your teen may enjoy. And while you might assume he’s lacking important life skills, he might just be hardwired to make those types of decisions until his brain is fully developed.

Research shows that death by injury is around six times more likely for those ages 15 to 19 as compared to children between ages 10 and 14. And the rate of criminal behavior and alcohol abuse is higher for this age bracket.

However, in some ways, this desire for risky behavior can be beneficial; your teen is less likely to be afraid of moving on to college and an adult life. Of course, it’s important to temper the most dangerous of the risk-taking behavior. Hold your teen accountable for his choices so he can learn to make better decisions.

Establish clear rules and follow through with logical consequences when necessary. And by age 17, your teen will likely start to modify his dangerous behavior. But, he may be in his mid-20s before he gains much better control over his impulses.  

4. The Brain Really Likes Friends

Mom and dad still matter to a teenager, but not nearly as much as friends do. As your teen’s brain develops, she’ll become better at abstract thinking. Along with this, her insecurity is also likely to increase because abstract reasoning will allow your teen to imagine how others see her.

And, as any parent of a teen knows, the focus is on looking “cool.” Issues surrounding body image and self-confidence become increasingly apparent and teens experience pressure to fit in with a peer group.

Teens also enjoy spending time with peers because being around friends activates the pleasure centers in the brain. This is why when teens are around their friends, they’re twice as likely to take risks that they wouldn't take when they're alone.

It's important for your teen to spend time with friends, and it's equally important to encourage your teen to develop relationships with healthy people. Peer involvement is an essential component to identity formation. Your teen's friends will help her decide who she is, aside from being your child.

5. The Brain Needs Sleep

Your teen needs nearly as much sleep as she did during earlier childhood--at least 9 to 10 hours a night. However, research shows only about 9 percent of high school students are getting enough sleep on a regular basis, which is detrimental to the brain’s development.

When a teen becomes sleep-deprived, the brain isn’t able to make sound decisions. This lack of sleep also increases impulsive and risk-taking behavior. Sleep deprivation in teens has also been linked to obesity, mental health problems, learning issues, and an increased risk of substance abuse problems. 

Setting a bedtime and taking away your teen's electronics at night are a few ways you can encourage your teen to get a full night's rest. 

Support Your Teen’s Development

While you certainly want to hold your teen accountable for bad behavior, perhaps understanding what’s going on in their brain can help you be a bit more understanding as to why it happens. Talking to your teen about brain development may also give him some insight into his strengths, as well as potential weaknesses.


National Institute of Mental Health: The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction

Tymula A, Rosenberg Belmaker LA, Roy AK, et al. Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2012;109(42):17135-17140. 

Giedd JN. Linking Adolescent Sleep, Brain Maturation, and BehaviorThe Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine. 2009;45(4):319-320. 

National Sleep Foundation: 2006 Sleep Poll in America

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