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Parenting Teens: How Your Teen's Brain is Affecting Their Behaviour.

Updated on February 24, 2013

Looking Inside Their Heads.

Every time, without fail, when I tell people that I love working with teens, I get a look of complete disbelief staring back at me. This is because teenagers tend to have a bad reputation. We, as adults, see them as moody drama queens that have no regard for anyone but themselves. They are prone to taking risks that petrify us to our very core and drive us wild with their complete inability to be aware of the potential consequences of their actions. How many times have you blurted out, possibly while foaming at the mouth and tearing at your hair, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Well they pretty much weren’t thinking; at least not in the way that we as adults think. Take some solace from the fact that your parenting techniques are not always to blame for the weird and ‘colourful’ behaviour that your teen sometimes displays. You can breathe a sigh of relief … there is another reason for this: your child’s brain and yes, it is still there, I promise that it does not go AWOL through the teen years.

Scientists have actually discovered, through modern brain-scanning technology, something that you may have suspected for a while now: a teen’s brain is not fully functioning yet (literally). In fact it is still in the process of rewiring and adjusting itself while it journeys into adulthood.

When does the brain start maturing?

Children’s brains undergo an enormous growth spurt before the age of six. In fact by the time they are six years old, their brains are 90-95% the size of an adult’s brain. Even though most of the brain growth has occurred, the brain still has to undergo a lot of adjusting before it can operate as an adult brain.

These adjustments to the brain can happen anytime from about 11 years of age, and continue into the mid-20s. It is important to note that these brain changes are largely dependent on age and the experiences that your child has been through. It is not dependent on puberty. Meaning that even if your child starts puberty early, it will not necessarily mean that their brain changes will start early too.

Taking a look inside the teenage brain.

One of the main changes that occur during the teen years is that the grey matter (the thinking and processing part of the brain) ‘prunes’ its connections that have been unused. At the same time, other connections are reinforced. This is the brain’s way of becoming more responsive, based on the use it or lose it’ principle.

This pruning and maturing process begins at the back of the brain and moves forward. This obviously means that the prefrontal cortex (the frontal lobe of the brain) is transformed last.

diagram 1: The Pre-frontal Cortex
diagram 1: The Pre-frontal Cortex

The problem with this is that the prefrontal cortex is the rational decision-making part of the brain. It helps us to analyse situations, strategise, weigh up consequences, solve problems and manage our instincts. Neuro-scientists think that because the prefrontal cortex only matures in the early to mid- twenties, teens tend to rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems. This is not the best option delivered to us by Mother Nature, because the amygdala’s primary function is to process emotions such as fear, anger, pleasure and aggression. It is also responsible for impulsive and instinctive behaviour patterns. This is why as an adult, you would tackle problems and respond to situations in a more intellectual and logical way, whereas your teen will make decisions and respond to situations using their “gut feel.” It is also the reason why they quite often do not foresee the consequences of their actions; as they are driven in the spur of the moment to make decisions based on instinctual feelings.

This back-to-front maturation of the brain also explains why sometimes your teen will think and behave in a mature, and rational manner in one moment, and then become completely irrational, reckless or emotional in the next. The prefrontal cortex is also the area in our brains that helps us to make rational decisions, and way up consequences when placed under pressure or in times if you have to make a split-second decision. Teens are often able to sit and have mature, rational thoughts on a topic but when placed under pressure or if they have to make a decision immediately, they will quite often make a “gut-feel” decision because their prefrontal cortex has not yet matured. This is a source of huge frustration to us teachers and anyone else dealing with teens. There are, for example, numerous programmes that teach the dangers of unsafe sex, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancies and so on. All teens know the dangers of having sex. So why is it that teen pregnancies are at an all time high? I could list countless examples were the education is supplied, the teens interact by giving insightful, well thought out suggestions, but as they leave the class they do the very opposite of what has just been taught.

Other alterations that take place in a teen’s brain are the changes that occur in the brain’s dopamine system. The dopamine system controls feelings of reward, and this is what drives teens into risk-taking behaviour. Because of this it makes socialising with their peers so tremendously alluring (as they see their parents as being boring and old-fashioned as opposed to their friends, who are in the same state, as being fun and interesting). This stage can be absolutely maddening to you because you are completely focused on the risks and consequences of your child’s actions, while your teen is off on every adventure they can find in the search of these feelings of reward that the dopamine system promises them.

diagram 2: The Dopamine System
diagram 2: The Dopamine System

You may ask yourself, why the hell does Mother Nature plays this cruel trick on us humans? I mean why would the human brain pass through such an ostensibly outrageous and treacherous chapter on its way to maturity? Why is it that just when a child needs their brain the most does it fails them in this way?

Well there is actually a reason. If you look at human growth and development from an evolutionary point of view, then it all makes sense. This is because sexually maturing humans need to take risks, rely on instinct and be driven by emotions if they hope to effectively find partners and create their own social network that will act as their support system when raising a family of their own. This is also the time that they venture out in the world trying to make a name for them, build a career, or a business of their own. In order to start out in a world where you have little or no experience you need to have the ability to rely on your instincts and not be afraid to take risks.

Do not lose hope; there are ways and means to get your teen through this stage, with only a few grey hairs, on your part. Just knowing why your teen is behaving in a certain way will already empower you.


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    • Marina Goetze profile image

      Marina 4 years ago from Cape Town

      Thank you. I so agree with you. I have been working with teens for 20 years now and what amazes me the most is how adults seem to have completely 'forgotten' what it was like to be a teen: the confusion, emotional upheaval, the angst and the stress. So often I find that mothers (especially) want people to be sympathetic of their hormonal mood swings, yet they are completely unsympathetic of their own daughter's /son's inner turmoil. Parents have to come to realize how scary the teen years are to their children, and becoming their pillar of support during these years. It is so wonderful to find someone who thinks in the same light.

    • Lizam1 profile image

      Lizam1 4 years ago from Victoria BC

      Great hub about this important subject. Recently I was in court supporting a client. Her lawyer and the clerk got into a discussion about their teens - it was so negative. I pointed out that if they had been talking about seniors - who can be equally grumpy and difficult - the rest of the listeners would be shocked and acuse them of ageism. Why do teens get such a bad rap - it's cruel and does not help build the relationships the teens are craving to have with their parents. Well written and presented.

    • Marina Goetze profile image

      Marina 4 years ago from Cape Town

      Thank you Krillco, your positive feedback is much appreciated.

    • krillco profile image

      William E Krill Jr 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      Well written; voted 'up'.