What’s so unique about the teenage brain?

The adolescent brain is often described as “in-progress” or “not fully operational.” In fact, we’ve used the phrase “boom town brain” here on Parenthetical to describe the absent-mindedness natural to teenagers. Although the teenage brain is different from the adult brain, describing the teenage brain as malfunctioning is incorrect. Teen brains aren’t broken or poorly functioning. Rather, teen brains are especially adaptive to new learning and exploration.

All humans are sensitive to dopamine, a chemical in the brain (and body) that is linked to feelings of reward and pleasure. When we have a positive experience, like a kiss or winning a game, dopamine is released motivating us to repeat the behavior to get the positive feeling again. Teens are especially responsive to dopamine. We’ve shared how this sensitivity to pleasure and reward is linked to teen’s increased risky behavior.

Often when the teenage brain is discussed this teen drive for reward through risk taking and pleasure seeking is our focus. However, the effect of dopamine on teen’s lives is more nuanced and has at least three other important influences according to Dan Siegel author of “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.”

  • Impulsiveness: First, a teen’s unique brain chemistry causes them to be more impulsive. They are more likely to act first and think later because the linkages between their reward seeking behavior and their impulse control are still developing. In fact, we often talk about self-control as a sign of maturity.
  • Addiction: Secondly, teens are more susceptible to addiction because of their sensitivity to dopamine. Addiction creates an uneven reward cycle for teens with a substance or behavior giving a teen a positive feeling that wears off quickly. The teen then seeks the substance or behavior to get the positive feeling again.
  • Ignoring Consequences: Finally, a teen’s dopamine response can lead to hyper-rationality. In other words, they may over rationalize the benefits of a situation to the point of ignoring the potential negative consequences. This hyper-rationalizing is why a typically clear thinking teen might dive off a cliff without testing how deep the water is – he can only see the thrill, the reward, the fun.

Due to their special brain chemistry teens are biased toward the positive (“This will be fun.” “Everyone is going to love this.”). And recent research shows that this positive bend may help teens learn. In a study comparing teens and adults, teens were more likely than adults to remember a pattern when they got an answer right.

In other words, teens were better at learning from positive experiences. In daily life, positive learning experiences might look like non-competitive games, tutoring or mentoring younger children, writing for a local paper or website, or exploring a hobby just for fun (without judgement or external rewards).

Rather than discussing the “work in progress” nature of teen brains maybe it is time to think of adolescent brain development as positive and beneficial to teens and society. The special nature of the teenage brain means adolescence is a time to foster the growth of skills the teen brain is especially primed for like emotional engagement, social relationships, novelty seeking, and creativity. Parents and adults who work with teens could encourage opportunities that combine these new skills and offer a way for teens to make meaningful contributions to their school or community.

Because positive reactions for teens are heightened when they are with peers, teams of teens working with responsive adults could be a powerful, positive influence on each other and on our world. DoSomething.org is just one example of a movement linking young people across the U.S. and world to work together to make big changes such as clothing youth in homeless shelters and removing millions of cigarette butts from the streets.

These kinds of problem solving opportunities offer a safe place for teen risk taking and trial and error learning with possibly big rewards. Because of their special brains, adolescents are uniquely situated to work on social, political, environmental, or health problems that matter to both teens and society. As UCLA neuroscientist Adriana Galvan, who studies the adolescent brain, said, “At no other time in life is there greater intrinsic motivation to explore new experiences than during adolescence.”


Article by Anne Clarkson

Anne-Headshot-useAnne Clarkson received her doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies from UW-Madison and is currently the Digital Parenting Education Specialist with UW-Extension Family Living Programs. Over the past 10 years, she has worked as an educator in the fields of community health, parenting, family studies, and digital education. She and her husband are excited to be starting their own parenting journey this summer. Anne was a pretty easy teenager whose parents worried more about pushing her to try new experiences than about her rebellious behavior. When not talking about families and technology, Anne loves to cook, read, travel, play board games, and take long walks (ideally along beaches but typically along sidewalks).