The Teen Brain

The Teen Brain

Thursday, 20 June 2019  | Karissa Assistant Principal Secondary

Whilst you may hear someone say “Oh to be young again…” and wish for a time when life was simpler and the body moved more freely… very rarely, if at all, would you hear someone say “Oh, to be a teenager again…”. The truth is, being a teenager is tough, but sometimes we forget just HOW tough.

Over the past weeks I have taken a more specific focus in my educational reading; looking more intensely at the teen brain – and how we can teach and engage teenagers effectively in school. During my reading and research, I have marvelled at God’s creation of the brain; it’s ability for growth and change, but have also been reminded again of the challenging time of life that all of our adolescents (particularly aged 13-16) are going through…

Use It or Lose It...

A child’s brain has a massive growth spurt at around 18 months of age. By the time the child is age 6 their brain is about 90-95% of adult size, but still requires a significant amount of ‘remodelling’ before it can function as an adult brain. This brain remodelling happens most intensively during adolescence and continues into the mid 20’s.

The main change occurring in the teenage brain is ‘pruning’. This is the time when unused connections in the thinking and processing part of the brain (the grey matter) are ‘pruned away’. At the same time, other connections are being strengthened. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.

The pruning process begins at the back of the brain, with the front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) being remodelled last. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, which helps teens to learn how to solve problems, set goals, consider consequences to actions and control their feelings and impulses.

The pruning stage of brain development is also when thinking patterns are formed, addictions can set in and a teenager’s self-perception is being challenged.

What teens use their brains for matters; how they spend their time is important...

Encourage your teen to try a new hobby or practice a new skill like learning a musical instrument.

Help your teen learn how to manage time and tasks: teach list making, and calendar use to manage work tasks, key dates and responsibilities. 

Help your teen to be physically active: sports, exercise, and being outdoors are good for the brain.

Work with your teen to set time limits for technology use: computer, TV, mobile phones and video games.

Help! My Brain has been hijacked by my Amygdala...

Due to the fact that our teenagers have an under-developed prefrontal cortex (that thoughtful, logical part of the brain), their actions are likely to be guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour.

Teenagers are more likely to act on impulse, misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, get into accidents of all kinds, get involved in fights and engage in dangerous or risky behaviour. They are less likely to think before they act, pause to consider consequences or change their dangerous behaviours.

These brain differences don’t mean that young people can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. However, an awareness of these differences can help us all to understand, anticipate, and manage the behaviour of adolescents.

When we interact with an emotional teen, we can remember…

Use words – not facial expressions – to say what you mean

Ask your teen how they feel – don’t assume – moods can change dramatically

If your teen is upset or angry – try to remain calm – don’t lose your temper

Set ground rules for your interactions. Say “I want to know why you are upset, but you cannot yell, scream or swear at me.”

Driven by High Risk and Social Reward...

God has hard-wired us all to want to live in community with others. We all desire love and acceptance... Well, if you throw in an under-developed frontal cortex and an over-active amygdala – you have a wonderful recipe for peer pressure and poor choices which are driven by social reward (positive emotions received in any social context).

Decisions made by adolescents are driven by the level of immediate social reward they will get from the action. They are more sensitive to acceptance and rejection by peers and are more likely to take risks when observed by friends. And because the social reward is such a high currency for our young people, most teens may not think about the consequences of their actions.

We can assist them…

To practice making decisions; to weigh the pros and cons of different types of choices… this will help your teen develop good judgment.

To take positive risks, like trying out for a new sport, making new friends, or visiting new places. This will build confidence and self-control.

In my role I get to see teenagers at their worst and at their best; to see their creative, inquisitive, passionate, and totally unpredictable minds at work. They are awkward and sensitive, they say inappropriate things, and they test the boundaries. But what a joy it is to know that I serve God alongside a team of wonderful Secondary teachers who are part of this daily transformative work of teaching, mentoring and loving adolescents through some of the most vulnerable years of their lives.

Further Reading:

‘The Teen Brain’ by David Gillespie
‘Secrets of a Teenage Brain’ by Bradley Busch
‘Adolescence and Learning - The Teenage Brain’ by Juliet Starbuck
‘Teaching with the Teen Brain in Mind’ by Maggie Dent


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