Health Encyclopedia

Understanding the Teen Brain 

It doesn't matter how smart your teen is or how well he or she scored on the SAT or ACT. Good judgment isn't something he or she can excel in, at least not yet.

The rational part of a teen's brain isn't fully developed and won't be until he or she is 25 years old or so.

In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain's rational part. This is the part of the bran that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdale. This is the emotional part.

In teen's brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing. That's why when teens are under overwhelming emotional input, they can't explain later what they were thinking. They weren't thinking as much as they were feeling.

What's a parent to do? 

You're the most important role model your kids have. Sure, their friends are important to them, but the way you behave and fulfill your responsibilities will have a profound and long-lasting effect on your children.

  • Discussing the consequences of their actions can help your child link impulsive thinking with facts. This helps the brain make these connections and wires the brain to make this link more often.

  • Remind your teens that they're resilient and competent. Because they're so focused in the moment, adolescents have trouble seeing they can play a part in changing bad situations. Reminding them of instances in the past they thought would be devastating, but turned out for the best can help.

  • Become familiar with things that are important to your teens. It doesn't mean you have to like hip-hop music, but showing an interest in the things they're involved in shows them they're important to you.

  • Ask teens if they want you to respond when they come to you with problems, or if they just want you to listen.

Parents tend to jump in with advice to try to fix their child's problem or place blame. But this can make teens less likely to be open with their parents in the future. You want to make it emotionally safe and easy for them to come to you, so you can be part of their lives.

Signs of trouble

It's normal for teens to be down or out of sorts for a couple days. But, if you see a significant mood or behavioral change that lasts more than 2 weeks, it could mean something else is going on, such as depression.

If you think your teen could be depressed, promptly seek professional treatment for your child. Depression is serious and, if left untreated, can be life threatening.

Your teen needs your guidance, even though they may think they don't. Understanding their development can help you support them in becoming independent, responsible adults.


Medical Reviewers:

  • Holloway, Beth, RN, M.Ed.
  • newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
  • Roux, Susan L., ARNP