The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain

“How is impulsive and oblivious teenage behavior connected to their brain growth and change?”

By dierk schaefer on Flickr
By dierk schaefer on Flickr

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies the human brain in social settings, such as how our brains make it possible to quickly read a social or emotional cue.  In the following TED talk video, she explains one of the great mysteries of parenting – how it is that smart, lovely teenagers can be so slow to read the way other people feel or make terribly unsafe or unwise decisions.

Blakemore uses research on the brain to illustrate that . . .

  • While it may seem that your teen is purposefully acting oblivious or unsafe, we now know that adolescents’ brains are still developing from early puberty until their late 20s or early 30s.  Much of teens’ “crazy” behavior is due to the fact that their brains develop more slowly than their other abilities.
  • Some parts of the brain develop faster than others. For instance, many teens will be able to follow a rule but those same teens will be unable to understand another person’s perspective.
  • Adolescents take more risks than children or adults, especially when they are with their friends. This is because adolescent brains are hypersensitive to the rewarding feeling of risk and have less ability to inhibit risky behavior.

Almost 400 years ago Shakespeare was portraying teens in the same negative way we portray them today but Blakemore argues that today it is time to understand why teens act the way they do rather than labeling them negatively. Blakemore said, “We sometimes laugh about teenagers.  They’re parodied – even demonized in the media for their typical teenage behavior.  They take risks; they are sometimes moody; they are self conscious . . . But today, we try to understand the underlying changes that are going on in their brain.”

The good news is that as parents we can help our teens make smarter, kinder decisions even as their brain is developing.  Becky shared some of the following ideas for what parents can do in her post on “Why Smart Kids Do Dumb Things.”

What is a parent to do? Ban all interaction with friends until age 25? Make all decisions for your child until after graduation? You wish! However, there are things that you can do to assist your child until his or her brain matures.

  • You can act as your child’s “frontal lob.”  Don’t be afraid to say “no” to circumstances where your child will be in a situation that is likely to enhance poor decision making. One of the best things that you can do for your child during the teen years is to monitor their whereabouts and experiences.
  • Conversely, consider saying “yes” to opportunities that might build your child’s healthy decision making skills and confidence in their ability to make good choices. Even if you have to step a bit outside your own comfort zone.
  • Practice decision making with your child before he or she is in a stressful or stimulating situation. Scientists have demonstrated that teens can use healthier decision making pathways when they have been developed as a pattern prior to the specific circumstance. So share with your child an actual script to use if he or she is in a sticky situation. Provide him or her with strategies for getting out of a situation that is getting out of hand. And then role play with them for practice.
  • Be patient. A few boneheaded decisions are part of the learning process. The vast majority of young people (and their parents) survive dumb decisions and live to laugh about them later.

When have you noticed your teen’s brain being slower than his or her actions and choices?  What do you do to help your teen make safe, kind decisions?


Article by Anne

Anne-Headshot-useAnne is an interim Extension Specialist with Cooperative Extension Family Living Programs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She is also a doctoral student in Human Development & Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and has a masters degree in Public Health. She is the oldest of three children.