The Teenage Brain

Colleen O’Grady said “The teenage brain is hardwired for conflict. Don’t take it personally.” As many a parent of adolescents will confess, it’s a war zone and it ain’t pretty!


The adolescent brain is not an adult brain that needs to be filled in. It’s more like the raw frame of a building that still needs its walls, wiring, and roof. So, contrary to popular belief, their brains, not their hormones, are to blame for being such unpredictable, irrational little monsters. Teens actually are very intelligent (their short-term memory increases up to 30%), but they are ill equipped to manage their erratically sprouting mental abilities. The growth spurt that the prefrontal lobe goes through can be blamed for molehill-to-mountain over-exaggerations and the all-or-nothing, love-hate, black-white thinking of adolescence. The growth of the parietal lobe improves their musical abilities and rhythm, and the cerebellum aids in physical movement and cognitive processing skills. And yes, female brains mature up to 2 years faster than male adolescent brains.

The Teenage Brain Emotions


To add gasoline to this bubbling cauldron, teens are ruled mostly by their emotions, not by logic. During adolescence, templates for adult relationships are being formed. Emotions are imperative for learning and teen emotions can either form lifelong memories or create very powerful learning blocks. The problem is that teens experience emotions before their verbal abilities can express said emotions. As the rational frontal lobes are not yet completely matured, teens rely on the emotional amygdalae and therefore, cannot anticipate the consequences of their behaviour.

Hormones & Neurotransmitters

Talking about a bubbling cauldron, and adding insult to injury, neurotransmitter (brain) and hormonal (body) levels fluctuate more than normal and can go awry. Testosterone and estrogen are found all over the brain during puberty. Serotonin (the happy hormone) can be over- or under produced causing depression and eating disorders. Melatonin causes teens sleep cycles to move two time zones west – they go to sleep later at night as melatonin levels rise later and can’t get up in the morning as levels fall only later on in the morning. Teens need 9-10 hours of sleep and school schedules make it impossible for them to get that amount of sleep. Dopamine spikes occur when teens take risks, which can physically change the dopamine receptor sites in the brain. This makes teens more vulnerable to addiction and makes teen addiction harder to break.

Stress & Multitasking

Adolescents are more vulnerable to stress than adults because of the higher emotional impact on them. Stress can have permanent consequences on teens’ mental health, putting them at higher risk for disorders like depression. Multitasking causes divided attention, allowing for quick bursts of differing feedback, which has many addictive qualities. The result is a habitual short attention span in adolescents.

The Teenage Brain The Big Three

The Big Three

The big three tips for parents of teens are: love, structure, and patience. The big three tips for teenagers themselves are: explore (within accepted limits), be independent (but accept love and its discipline), and practice what you’re good at (you’ll become even better at it as an adult).

“Adolescence is a time of startling growth and streamlining in the brain, enabling teens to think abstractly, speak expressively and move gracefully” – Sheryl Feinstein.

Infants who are learning to walk don’t want adults to carry them. By that same token, teens don’t want adults making frontal lobe decisions for them while their frontal lobes are still maturing. In this lies the anguish and fear, because an infant falling on its diapered bum is not comparable to an auto accident or teen pregnancy. All we can do is to trust that the village can raise the child.


Secrets of the Teenage Brain: Research-Based Strategies for Reaching & Teaching Today’s Adolescents by Sheryl Feinstein, EdD

The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy by Robert Sylwester

The Owner’s Manual for The Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research by Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D.

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