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A dad’s guide to the teenage brain

Why the teenage brain?

It is no secret that dealing with teenage kids can be challenging—no matter what you do, you cannot seem to understand why they act the way that they do. Everyone talks about the hormonal changes that come with puberty or the complex social landscape that teenagers go through, but there is more to it than that.

We now know that the brain is going through profound changes.

During the teenage years, the brain goes through immense structural changes to prepare for adulthood. This period of brain’s development can also lead to the increased impulsive behaviours and fluctuations in mood that is typically associated with teenagers.

So, what is going on in the teenage brain?

In the past it was thought that most of brain development happens in young children. This is not the case, brain development goes through a burst in late childhood and then continues until a person's early twenties.

Whilst a teenager is technically an adult at age 16, imaging of brains of all ages has shown researchers that the brain is still developing well into the mid-twenties. One particular region that takes time to mature is the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC; see image below). This is the region of the brain involved in decision making, impulse control, personality, and social behaviours. This region is also involved in the ability for a person to take into consideration other’s perspectives, and by extension, is associated with feelings of empathy.

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the changing of brain networks (or rewiring of the brain) in response to learning. In early adolescence, the number of connections—also known as synapses—that the brain makes is at its peak. Throughout the teenage years the number of connections are cut back in a process called synaptic pruning. This decrease can be thought of as making the brain networks more efficient in preparation for adulthood. Thus, the regions for decision‑making, inhibition, and empathy have not been properly optimized in your teenager yet. Since the teenage brain is still a "work in progress" , sometimes it relies on other, more emotional and impulsive parts of the brain to make decisions.

Teenagers and their turbulent moods

Teenagers are known for rapid mood swings and for being non-communicative at times and this can be frustrating for parents. Though often when we consider how our teen might feel, we might not consider that their brain is still in a period of development and despite being able to function like an adult in some ways, they are still very much learning and growing and particularly within the brain (their brains are being streamlined). Most importantly, if we can stay calm during their stormy moments, this helps them to manage their own emotions.

Why is understanding the teenage brain important in how I parent my teenager?

It is important to recognize that your teenager’s brain works differently than yours when they are faced with a problem. Therefore, it’s worth being patient and understanding when they make irrational decisions or have a very emotive response.

Top Tips

  • Stay calm during mood swings

  • Make space for them to share their feelings

  • Don't make assumptions about how and why they are feeling that way

Don't say:

"Just get over it!", "Stop being oversensitive", "It doesn't matter."

What should I say?

Do ask open questions and make sure your teenager knows that they are not alone (you and others are there to support them) and moods and feelings are temporary.

To learn more about the teenage brain, we recommend this TedTalk from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

For more tips on talking to your teen, we recommend the book Talk with Her by Kimberley Wolf.

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