What IS going on in that head of his?


One hallmark of being a parent of a teen is the number of times a day you mutter, “What is he thinking?” under your breath. My mother’s mantra used to be, “Sure, she’s weird, but we love her anyway.” Often what is going on inside a teen’s head is a complete mystery to parents. However, scientists have recently found that there are some truly interesting things going on inside your adolescent’s brain.  Here is how brain research interprets a few of those “what is s/he thinking?” moments.

Ever feel that living with your child is an emotional twilight zone?

Has your daughter ever shrieked, “Why are you looking at me like that?”  Has your son gone into a rage and demanded to know why you are mad at him after you simply point out that, indeed, he does need to complete his Saturday morning chores. You may be mystified as to what you could have done to trigger such a reaction. You, in fact, may have done nothing. Your teen’s brain may simply be misinterpreting your intention. Young teen brains are still developing the ability to read facial expressions, emotion and social cues accurately. Researchers who show teens pictures of faces exhibiting various emotions have found that young teens often misinterpreted sadness or stress as anger. The primitive parts of the brain that produce  “gut reactions” and aggression develop earlier than the parts of the brain that govern impulse control and rational thought. Consequently, your teen truly can go from 0 to 100 on the emotional intensity scale, right in front of your eyes, based on what he or she believes you are thinking –

You may notice all of a sudden that your child “gets” your adult humor.

Do you and your teen suddenly share a similar sense of humor?  Is he or she able to tell and enjoy complex jokes? Your teen’s developing brain is becoming better at discerning the subtleties of meaning and recognizing irony.  Where younger children perceive issues as very concrete or black and white, teens’ brains allow them to tune in to shades of grey. They become masters of the double entendre where words like “sick” and “dope” mean something is great. Many parents find that it becomes a lot more fun to talk about books, share stories and jokes, and watch TV and movies together with teens because they really “get” a more complicated and witty plot.

You get first-hand experience with your child’s growing ability to formulate and hold their own in an argument.

Adolescents comprise nature’s most enthusiastic debate team. They take a strong stance on an issue and then flip to the opposite perspective a short time later. They gleefully point out and dissect the inconsistencies in your moral reasoning. Sometimes they take an oppositional stance that they don’t actually support, not just to annoy you (though that can be a delightful perk), but to practice the skill of argumentation. No matter how annoying it may be, all of this irritating argumentation, experimentation and drama has an important purpose. Adolescents are exercising and strengthening the reasoning and decision making parts of their brain. So remember, the mouthy teen of today may become the successful attorney of tomorrow.

In those moments when you find yourself staring at your teen in confusion as he or she goes through mental gymnastics, remember that their brains  are undergoing major  development changes.  These changes in the brain eventually allow teens to function successfully as adults but they take time and practice to consistently make the right connections.

What mystifying, interesting or annoying things has your child said or done recently?


Article by Becky Mather

Becky is an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of her work centers on parenting education and adolescent development. She and her husband are the parents of two young adults and a pre-adolescent. Becky is a Certified Family Life Educator.