What you need to know about your teen's brainWritten by Cara Plett
What's inside this article
"I wish the teen years would go on forever," said no one, ever.
Teenagers are battling a deluge of mood swings, friendship flings, peer pressure, life decisions, school stress and countless other large and small hurdles that may or may not seem like "the worst thing ever."
There's no real excuse for their sometimes irrational or reckless behaviour. But understanding your teen's brain development may just give you insight into why your son wants to drop out of high school to form a band or why your daughter is convinced she's going to "literally die" if she doesn't go to that party.
The adolescent years are a malleable time for your teen's brain – and this shaping and re-shaping is not without pain. But the brain bending that occurs is also a vital step toward their minds become faster and more efficient. Eva Ritvo, MD, says "the longer this ‘redesign’ process takes, the smarter and more competent your teen will become."1
Hear that? A long, sometimes turbulent, teen phase is key to future competency for your child – at least as far as brain development is concerned!
What's the matter with gray matter?
For years the commonly held belief was that a person’s amount of gray matter – which makes up the cortex of the brain and is involved in memory and conscious thought – peaked in very early childhood. However, more recent research shows that gray matter reaches its highest volume in early adolescence.
What does this mean for your teen?
This rapid growth in neural connections, or synapses, in the brain during adolescence is followed by a pruning process which makes the mind more efficient. "Although genes play a role in the decline in synapses, animal research has shown that experience also shapes the decline," according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).2 "Synapses 'exercised' by experience survive and are strengthened, while others are pruned away." To sum up this pruning strategy: Use it or lose it!
The goal then during the teen years is to exercise a variety of synapses so the pruning process sets your teen up for success as an adult. What does this exercise look like? Ritvo writes that "connections are built and reinforced through repetitive exposure to new physical skills, mental skills, and life experiences."
- Practical tips: Allow your teen to explore the world around them! Expose them to a variety of musical styles and instruments, encourage them to play sports and exercise, help them set boundaries for media consumption. If you allow your teen to consume all their free time with video games, they may get really good at getting to the next level, but they will likely suffer in developing a broader range of mental and physical skills, as well as behavioural regulation.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
It may surprise you to hear that when faced with activities with known risks, teenagers make conservative decisions, just as adults would. Phew! That's a relief. "Where the teen brain differs from the adult brain is in assessing the risk of an unfamiliar activity, which is a beautiful example of ‘knowledge is power,’" reveals Ritvo.
Naturally, teens will find more activities to be unfamiliar than not, because they simply lack life experience. And as if inexperience weren't enough of a hurdle, Ritvo says that novelty-seeking urges peak at age 15. Therefore, teenagers are intentionally seeking out activities that are new, unknown and potentially risky.
Practical tips: "When teens are properly introduced to the (unexaggerated!) risks associated with an unhealthy activity, they are far less likely to engage in it," claims Ritvo. This is your chance to help bridge the gap, at least as far as risks are concerned, between the familiar and the unfamiliar for your teen.
But present the information in small doses rather than all at the same time. Unlike an adult who has sat through countless hours of university lectures or work meetings, a teenager's brain isn't used to retaining a ton of information at one time. Most of them are used to an influx of text messages, however, so take a hint from your teen's medium of choice and dish out advice in text-sized doses!
- Here's another practical tip: Give your teen an assignment when they are facing a decision. Ask your son or daughter to research the activity thoroughly and to present you their findings, says Karin Gregory, a Focus on the Family Canada counsellor. With this strategy, says Gregory, "you give the teen some responsibility in finding out the real facts, not just trusting the cool idea their buddy came up with."
If their activity of choice is still not meeting your standards, discuss alternatives. "Figure out options that satisfy the majority of both of your needs, even if they don’t satisfy absolutely everything," Gregory suggests. "For instance, if your son wants to go parachute jumping for his sixteenth birthday, but you aren't comfortable with that, try suggesting a highline zip trek as an alternative."
Sleep, or lack of it
Is your teen becoming nocturnal? You may be surprised to find out that teens are not necessarily making the decision to stay up later; their brain is. In adolescence, changes in the brain disrupt sleep regulation, making it difficult for your teen to fall asleep – and wake up – at a decent hour. We can all get a little grumpy with a lack of sleep, but sleep deprivation in teens can also contribute to depression and can increase impulsive behaviour.
- Practical tips: Does your teen take their cell phone or laptop to bed? Try setting boundaries for your teen and their electronic devices. Perhaps make a rule that there's to be no phone or computer use past a certain time at night. To help your teen (and you!) maintain these boundaries, you could even collect all the devices in a basket in the kitchen before the set time. Or try turning the WiFi off at night to ensure the temptation to surf is removed.
Anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise – these are often classified as the basic six universal emotions. Everyone experiences them. But you and I both know that your teen feels all of these – and seemingly 60 more emotions – on any given day.
Why do teenagers experience so many emotions – and experience them so intensely? Are they being overly dramatic?
"Functional brain imaging studies," reports the NIMH, "suggest that the responses of teens to emotionally loaded images and situations are heightened relative to younger children and adults." While the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully active, or even hyperactive, the parts of the brain involved in emotional control are not yet mature in teens.
So is your daughter being overly dramatic? Perhaps. But the teen brain is at least in part to blame for those excessive emotions.
"Teens are hit with a double-whammy when faced with strong or complex emotions," Ritvo explains. "They don’t know how to wield them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have the brain structures in place to pull it off as an adult brain would." As you can imagine, and perhaps remember, this can be even more frustrating for your teen than for you.
Practical tips: "The louder your teen gets, the quieter you should be; the angrier your teen becomes, the gentler you should become; the meaner your teen behaves, the kinder you should be," advises Ritvo. Otherwise, you risk escalating your teen's emotional outburst.
Gregory adds, "When teens act out in problematic ways, parents are often stuck in a reactive place themselves." Have you heard yourself say something similar to these phrases? You WILL respect me! I have to control him for his own good! You think you're loud? Well I can be louder!
"This sort of heightened reaction sets everyone up for a ‘yes you will – no I won’t’ impasse," Gregory warns. And neither parent nor teen wins in that standoff. When faced with a very emotional teen, if a parent can remain calm and collected they will help keep the decibel level down in the home and model healthy emotional control for their son or daughter.
Cortisol, BDNF and oxytocin – oh my!
"Hormone systems involved in the brain's response to stress are also changing during the teens," according to the NIMH. "As with reproductive hormones, stress hormones can have complex effects on the brain, and as a result, behaviour." Because cortisol, the stress hormone, can negatively impact memory, learning and performance, it is in your and your teen's best interest to help them minimize the amount of stress they face in their adolescent years.
BDNF stands for "brain derived neurotrophic factor" and is essential in the brain for memory, learning and higher-order thinking. All of those brain functions are vitally important for your teen's education, future career and life in general. So what's the key to giving your teen the upper hand in life? Studying, reading and attending classes all contribute to their smarts, but exercise can too! "BDNF levels are boosted by aerobic exercise – so teens must exercise," insists Ritvo.
When we think of oxytocin, we usually think of it in relation to childbirth, sexual intimacy and social bonding. But it can play a different, less favourable, role too. During adolescence, the body produces extra receptors for oxytocin.3 While this sounds like it could be a good thing (more mother-son bonding perhaps!) the increased sensitivity to oxytocin leaves your teen feeling self-conscious. They may feel as though everyone is looking at them, whether they like it or not. However, the benefits of oxytocin, such as a sense of optimism and trust, outweigh this side effect of oversensitivity.
Practical tips: Of course, minimizing cortisol doesn't mean you need to bend over backwards to create a teen-centred home where you tip-toe around your delicate developing adolescent. But do try a little empathy when their world seems to be collapsing over not being invited to a classmate's party or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Try making their favourite meal when they are facing a particularly stressful day. Or surprise them by doing their laundry during finals week.
To help your teen boost their BDNF so their brain can function optimally, encourage them to exercise! It doesn't matter what type of exercise they choose, they just need to get moving. See if they'd like to join an organized sport, engage them in an occasional game of Frisbee, or ask them to join you for a brisk walk after dinner. And remember to lead by example!
Boosting oxytocin can be as simple as giving your teen a hug, or a pat on the back! Helping your son or daughter experience a sense of security in their home and family is also extremely important to boosting this bonding hormone.
Having "the talk" with your teen
You've talked about the "birds and the bees" with your son or daughter. Should you breach the "brain and behaviour" topic? Sure!
To create the sense that you are on your teen's team and somewhat understand what they are going through internally, try discussing their brain development with them. Focus on helping your teen understand that their developing brain still needs some checks and balances, Gregory advises. "They might not always appreciate it, but it will bear fruit in the long run."
"This isn’t the sort of information to introduce or ‘remind of’ in the middle of a conflict!" Gregory warns. While it may be fuel for your side of the argument, it will also pour fuel directly on your fuming teen.
Simply helping your teen recognize that they are not always in their best mind for decision making when they are tired, hungry, hurt, stressed or overstimulated is enough of a tool for your teen's emotional tool belt, claims Gregory.
1. National Institute of Mental Health. “The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction,” 2011.
2. Ritvo, Eva, M.D. “Parenting and the Amazing Teen Brain,” Psychology Today. June 26, 2013.
3. Steinberg, Laurence. “A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking,” Developmental Review. 2008.
Cara Plett is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family Canada.
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