Teenage Brain Development

Raising teenagers is no easy task in today’s culture. Although past generations admittedly also had difficulty understanding teen behavior, the present seems particularly challenging. Constant in our lives is the ever present media influences and new technology – ipods, text messaging, video games, etc.

However, we also have the benefit of understanding more than ever before about teenage brain development. We know, for example, that the teen brain is very different than the adult brain. With the onset of puberty comes a huge ‘firing up’ of brain synapses, not unlike that which happens during infancy.

Because of this increased activity in portions of the brain, some of the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, or ‘thinking’ part of the brain does not work as well. Thus, teens frequently have impulsive behavior, acting very spontaneously, often without assessing risk or weighing consequences. This is normal teenage brain development.

There is also a shift in sleep behavior. The circadian ‘clock’ that regulates sleep-wake cycles, is very different in teens than it is in children or in adults. That mechanism that allows us to settle down and prepare for sleep in the evening, serves to prop teens up instead. This accounts for teens who begin their homework at 10 pm, or say they are not tired or can’t sleep at 11 or midnight, when the rest of us are off to bed.

There is much discussion on teenage behavior and on discipline for teenagers. Developmentally, teens are in the emotional phase of independence. By the end of this phase they actually need to be prepared to function on their own, out there in the world. They are separating from parents, which can indeed be scary for us. They are stretching their wings – in ways that often seem to us as though they are rejecting some or all of the values we have worked so hard to instill.

Parenting a teenager involves helping them achieve independence by encouraging decision-making and problem-solving. This is often difficult, as the influences placed on them by our culture frequently leave us wanting to lock them in their rooms until they are in their 20s in order to protect them from such teen issues as drugs, or alcohol or engaging in early sexual activity.

Raising teenagers, while challenging, can also be incredibly rewarding as you see them choose friends, and begin dating, as well as make decisions about school and career. They become ‘their own person’. Our job is to encourage their decision-making skills by allowing them to solve problems wherever possible, and by empowering them to think through the possible consequences of choices, rather than telling them what to do, or attempting to control them.

Asking curiosity questions to help them think through a problem is so much more effective than telling them what do. ‘What happened’, ‘How do you think that worked for you?’, and ‘What can you do differently next time’ are examples.

It is during this time that we need to work especially hard as parents to use a democratic discipline style. We want to help them become self sufficient and empower them to make their own decisions, while still holding firm to reasonable limits.

More information on teenage brain development can be found in Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline for Teenagers.