The Teenage Brain – Whats Going On There?

Whilst I am yet to embark on the teenage years with my own children, it is with frightening speed that these years will come bullocking with full force into the realms of our peaceful home. Only joking, of course it is not peaceful. But my work as a youth counsellor and my work as friend to many mums with teens, set me on a path to discover more about “the teenager”. This in turn led me look in depth at the development of the teenage brain as it coincides with the challenges of puberty and hormones.   What we once blamed solely on these hormonal changes has been overshadowed by the work of scientists in looking at the biology of the human brain, and the changes that take place over the course of childhood, adolescents and right into early adulthood. A greater understanding of these changes will enable us to better understand the social, emotional and behavioural implications for our youth and make greater sense of the challenges that face the parent of the teenager, as well as the teenager themselves. 

So here is a basic biology lesson of the human brain and why it is so important to the understanding of our teenagers:

  • By the time a child is 6 years old, their brain is about 90 – 95% the size of an adults brain. This is only in size however, and from here the child’s brain must undertake enormous changes as it embarks on its journey to adulthood. Most of these changes however take place in adolescents or during the teenage years. With the developments in MRI technology and the ability to see accurate, living pictures of the molecular biology of the brain, scientists are able to give us a far greater understanding of exactly how this maturation of the brain takes place.


  • During this adolescent phase of development, the brain undergoes a “pruning”. It keeps what it needs, discards what it doesn’t need, and as such a ”use it or lose It” principle applies.


  • This “pruning” or refining, begins at the back of the brain during early childhood and makes its way to the front of the brain throughout a slow process that doesn’t finish until well into late adolescents and early adulthood.


  • The back half of the brain is responsible for pleasure –seeking , rewards, gratification and risk-taking. The front half of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is responsible for problem-solving, the ability to control impulses and the ability to plan actions and foresee consequences. So now we are beginning to see why this back to front development is resulting in a gulf between the thought patterns and behaviours of our teenage youth.  (In other words they are great at knowing what pleases them but not so refined at making the judgement to foresee possible consequences).


  • Whilst the teenager waits for this front half of the brain to catch up with the back half, they rely instead on another part of the brain called the amagydale (not necessary to remember but just adds scientific weight to my argument). This part of the brain is responsible for emotion, impulse, aggression and instinctive behaviour. The teenage brain therefore appears to have an overactive accelerator but a pretty dodgy brake system!

Whilst some parents and their teenagers sail through the teenage years, there are many factors that can help determine this, including genes, personality, environment, family and friends, community and culture. The developments we are seeing with regard to the growing teenage brain however, are certainly helping us to better understand the changes and challenges that are taking place.

In some follow-up posts we will look at the implications this brain development has on the social and emotional development of our youth and ways in which we as parents can help steer ourselves and our children through these changes in a healthy, productive and amicable way.

So…all my teenage parents….what are some of the challenges you have faced parenting your children through these years? And would you/will you do anything differently if given the opportunity with other kids?

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This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Debbie

    Gah!!! Martine – I wouldn’t know where to start with the challenges I have been presented with thus far…
    Nothing can prepare you for this… being the mother of a newborn is pretty tough but it is nothing compared to being the mother of a teenager & I have to say that so far in my experience, being the mother of a 15yo boy has been a breeze compared to being the mother of a 14yo girl!!!!
    Would I do anything different with the next two…????? Hmmmm hard to say they are different beings, with different experiences & exposures. I am worried about the role model that the 14yo is for the 11yo that’s for sure!. I’m hopefully a bit wiser & my eyes are open wider. I am definitely learning not to take things to heart – that what is said & done is not necessarily a personal attack on me even though it may be focused directly at me!!
    I have read two great books by Michael Carr-Gregg (Surviving Adolescene & The Princess Bitchface Syndrome), both great informative books explaining how the teenage brain works. I read them a couple of years ago & have searched them out recently looking for some much needed help & reassurance that things will improve. Having someone to talk with who is experiencing the same sort of things is something else I have been looking for & am missing – it can be quite a lonely job, being the mother of a teenager, a job that makes you question your choices & decisions big time. Maybe there should be “mother’s group” for mums of teenagers!!??
    One thing I am continually trying to do is to get my hubby to read the books & have some understanding of how the teenage mind works – that they have not & will not mature fully for a long time yet – that there is still a lot of development to be had before they are near completion. That some of his (& mine) expectations are simply beyond the capabilities of the mind of a teenager. And also for him to have a teeny weeny bit of insight into the mindset of an adolescent girl – I can remember (to a certain degree) being there & going through those tough years of adolescents; but as a male & as a dad I don’t think he has as much as an inkling of it. In saying that I have to say how grateful & thankful of him I am after the fantastic way he has handled the more recent antics of our very own ‘Princess Bitchface’ – he surprised me in the best possible way with his calmness & wisdom even though the buttons were being pushed. I had held back telling him some things that had been going on for fear of an explosion & things getting worse rather than better. I have learned that sharing & trusting my partner, the father of my daughter, is definitely the better option & I now truly believe the saying “that a problem shared is a problem halved.”

    Good Luck to all the parents of teenagers out there – all I can say is hold on tight & hang in there, you’re on the ride of your life & hopefully you’ll get through to the end in one piece!!

    1. Martine

      Thanks Debbie for your very honest comment. The very fact that you are trying to understand your teen and encouraging your husband to try and grasp a better understanding is a great credit to you and certainly shows you are doing all you can to get through these years. And I am sure you have put in enough groundwork to know that as she does grow and mature, you will no longer be the “baddie”. It is very common for teens to act as though they dont need their family, believing they can get all they need from their peers. During this time however, the parents are more important than ever so your continued support of her and each other will get you through to ‘the other side’. Cant speak for the difference between boys and girls but I am sure their are many factors that come into how smoothly or not our kids make the transition from child to adult. And absolutley it is important to share with your husband as it is so important that you look after yourselves and get the support you need from each other. I am sure their are some forums and websites available to help support parents of teens so will keep a look out. Keep plugging away..

  2. MultipleMum

    Hi there,

    The teenager is a very complex beast isn’t it!? I wrote some thoughts about my own recent encounter with a teenager:

    I wish I had read this post first 🙂

    Hats off to you doing ‘youth work’ for a living. Like working with toddlers, I imagine it is both fun and challenging, with never a dull moment in between. x

    1. Martine

      Thankyou…and yes, certainly challenging but rewarding too.

  3. Judith

    Hi, and a great post.

    I’ve found the teenage years so interesting. ‘Teenagedom’ is still here with us and seems to be going on forever. The challenge is that with the spacing of my children, one teenager leads into another one and so on…..(1 son, 24, has now left home, my other son, 21, still at home with my 2 daughters, 16 + 14) We’ve had, and still have some ups and downs and we make sure we have consistency within our family unit. Consistency is something that still continues throughout the teenage years. My 14 year old recently said “The boundaries we put in place were awful at the time and I at least I know where I am with them. My negotiation skills have improved and I can put my own boundaries in too.”

    The stuff that’s kept our feet on the ground has always been our availability to listen to them and their point of view. We’ve always encouraged them to talk, and boy do they talk! Yes we’ve had the grunts and monosyllabic answers too and they too pass with time.
    As a family, we’ve always tried to up the challenge by doing activities which involve pleasure, risk and fun. It can act as a great team builder too.

    I agree with Debbie from the previous post about involving the dad. So important. My husband has a different take on things, deals with them in a different way yet gets the results needed at the time. Sometimes one parent can be too close to the challenge whilst the other parent can give the objective perspective.

    I don’t wish away these years as they fly by quickly enough and the chicks fly the nest in the blink of an eye.
    I seize the opportunities to enjoy all my children (in all their glorious technicolour) as and when they come.

    Have fun!

    1. Martine

      Thank Judith for your wonderful comments. I love the widom of your daughter which again proves the necesssity of having consistant boundaries in place both for the child and the parent. I also love that you do activities together that are challenging and appropriate for their stages of development. And yes, those of us lucky to have a partner in this are certainly wise to use each other for differing perspectives as well as for support. You are abviously doing a great job and most of all enjoying your parenting.

  4. Melinda clothier

    The hardest part about parenting teenagers is accepting that they are no longer children. Choose your battles wisely and let them win some.

    1. Martine

      Great advice Mel!

  5. e. swan

    No one can predict the thinking of anybody. And it is a very big challenge for a parent like me to try and get into what my youths are thinking and to get them away from risky youth behaviors. But I will enjoy that challenge for it will give me great success once I have done it right.

  6. Bonita

    I love what you guys are up too. This kind of clever work and coverage! Keep up the fantastic works guys I’ve added you guys to my blogroll.

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