Parent conversations: How does a teen’s brain work?

Parent conversations: How does a teen’s brain work?

Each phase of childhood comes with its own unique set of blessings and challenges, doesn’t it? Teenagers get a bad rap, but as my daughter enters high school, I have had many wise friends tell me to savor these days—that the teen years are some of the best. As a rookie mom of a teen, I’m imagining that it’s a lot like those first few months with an infant. You’re so sleep-deprived that sometimes you want to rush your child on to the next phase, but once you get there, you think back to those days wistfully.

To help you enjoy the teen years rather than just endure them, read on for some insights into your teen’s brain.

— Nicole Balza


Parenting teens can be exhausting, frustrating, and seemingly impossible! As a parent of three adolescents, ages 14, 18, and 20, daily conversations in our home often start with What were you thinking? Why would you do that? Didn’t you know that would happen?

Teen brains are still under construction

Parental frustrations in dealing with teens/young adults (ages 13-25) often come about because of a lack of knowledge about the developing adolescent brain. In order to better understand the teenage brain, it is helpful to view it as “still under construction.” Although physically the brain has reached its adult size during adolescence, its planning and judgment processing center is not fully developed until age 25.

Being informed about how the teen brain functions can help parents be more understanding and more intentional in providing what teens need most.

What does this mean? It means that as adults, we are able to examine long-term consequences, think rationally about events, and use good judgment in our daily lives. Due to the ongoing refinement of neural circuitry in the frontal cortex of teen brains, teens are more likely to act emotionally than rationally. Their behaviors are driven by feelings, not thought-out planning.

Another important characteristic of the still developing brain is that it is more susceptible to temptation and pleasure-seeking activities. In addition to planning and reasoning skills, the still maturing prefrontal cortex is also responsible for impulse control. This is where we see the biggest impact technology has on teen brains. Smartphones and apps are designed to hold the attention of the user with colorful icons and constant notifications. It’s no wonder teens and young adults can’t put them down. Research has demonstrated that getting a “like” or a “snap” or a notification causes a release of dopamine (a chemical messenger) in the brain. This “dopamine rush” provides an elevation in mood, attention, and/or motivation to do more of the same. Coupled with a lack of impulse control and an inability to evaluate long-term consequences, technology and the teen brain can be a recipe for disaster.

Parents can help nurture teen brains

As Christian parents, we are reminded that we should “be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). In the 21st century, it is still the Lord’s will for parents to “train” their children in the way of the Lord (Proverbs 22:6 NIV 84), not of the world. Here are some first steps parents can use today to make wise, godly parenting decisions and help nurture the teenage brain:

Listen to your children. Oftentimes they just need a place to vent their emotions. They do not want your advice or solutions; they need to blow off steam. Creating a safe environment for your teens to do this makes it more likely that they will come to you in the future with their concerns.

For more information on understanding your teen, visit centerforparentingeducation.org for informative articles on adolescent development and what parents of teens need to know.

Discuss the possible outcomes of certain behaviors with your teen. This helps the teen brain establish the link between cause and effect.

For more information, review the following TED Talks with your teen: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain and Insight Into the Teenage Brain: Adriana Galván (available on youtube.com).

Model good digital habits by putting your smartphone away when you talk to your teen and during important family time. Face-to-face communication helps your teen feel valued and important.

Go to humanetech.com for more information about managing technology. Videos and downloadable resources are available for parents and students regarding managing your time and technology more efficiently.

Encourage healthy eating and sleeping habits. Teens should get between 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. Lack of sleep negatively affects problem solving and increases emotional reactivity.

For more information on healthy habits for teens, go to healthychildren.org and search “adolescents” or “teens” for varied articles on parenting, depression, nutrition, and more.

Watch for warning signs. Due to hormonal changes, poor impulse control, and an emotionally-reactive brain, adolescence is a period when many mental health conditions become more prevalent. Watch for any or all of the following as they are signs your teen needs professional help: significant change in grades, increased/ decreased need for sleep, significant changes in appetite, loss of interest in favorite activities, social isolation, talk (or joking) of suicide or “not being around,” and/or use of alcohol/drugs.

Visit Christian Family Solutions, christianfamilysolutions.org, to talk with a professional counselor. Web-based video counseling is available.

Develop a partnership with your teen

Adolescence is a tumultuous time for teens and parents alike. Being informed about how the teen brain functions can help parents be more understanding and more intentional in providing what teens need most. Parenting teens is not easy, but there is hope. Chemically, scientists have proven the brain’s plasticity, or ability to modify and change based on experience. Therefore, parents and teens can continually work to communicate more openly and modify habits to promote healthy brain changes.

Finally, and most important, as Christians we rely on God’s promises. His words in John 16:33 reassure all parents of teens and young adults: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Author: Laura Reinke
Volume 107, Number 07
Issue: July 2020

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Laura Reinke
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