Key Brain Changes That Happen in the Teen Years and How They Impact Behavior

The brain changes immensely in the teen years. If you’ve got a teenager, you’ve probably mumbled, “What were they thinking?” to yourself at least once (or maybe a few times) while assessing a chaotic room or questioning a particular behavior. The good news is, they’re brain is still developing and changing, meaning that much of what you might be experiencing isn’t abnormal. The bad news is, the teen brain is much more emotional and reactive than the mature adult brain. 

Here are some of the specifics that parents need to know about brain changes in the teen years:

Increased pleasure-seeking behaviors:

The amygdala, which deals with emotions, develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex, which deals with important executive functions. Because the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until around age 25, these executive function skills—such as decision-making, reasoning, and problem-solving—play second fiddle to the amygdala in stressful or arousing situations. 

And with the emotional centers of the brain focused on rewards and good sensations, it’s easy to see why teens are more prone to risk-taking and pleasure-seeking behaviors.

Muted or diluted penalty assessment:

In addition to the amygdala’s role in decision-making, the teen brain tends to ignore or downplay potentially harmful consequences to risk-taking behavior. This is because the more rational prefrontal cortex—which warns against risky behaviors by weighing the cost and penalties—is less sensitive during these exploratory teen and young adult years.

Quests for new experiences:

Activation of dopamine, the “feel good” chemical in our brains, is increased during adolescence. When dopamine is surging, it serves to recognize and anticipate pleasure (i.e., rewards of some type). In addition, dopamine plays a role in attention and focus during the teen years, driving learning and quests for new experiences that we associate with pleasure (e.g., sex, alcohol, drugs, junk food, video games).

Increased sensitivity to social situations:

The teen years are focused on developing independence, identity, and socialization. During this crucial period, the amygdala becomes more sensitive to peers’ responses in order to help them find their “fit” within a group. 

Based on what the group views as positive or negative behavior, the teen will often adjust their own behavior to fit into the established social norms. It’s important to focus on building critical thinking skills with your teen so they can know when that’s a good thing—and when it’s not.

Sex hormones effects:

Hormonal changes affect much more than teens’ interest in dating. They can cause irritability, anger, depression, and massive mood swings, compounding the already difficult task of regulating emotions. Although these changing hormone levels are a normal and natural part of maturing, the behaviors that ensue can affect the entire family.

Please note: While changes in your teen’s mood and behavior are very normal, if you notice concerning patterns, don’t ignore them. Often parents miss key indicators of anxiety, depression, or mental health struggles because these behaviors are written off as a “phase.”

How parents can help navigate brain changes in teen years

Many parents think that the teen years are a time to “let go” as their children seek to build their identity, spend more time with friends, lean into independence by driving and/or working, and figure out their place in the world. 

While it’s true that your teen will probably spend less time with the family, that doesn’t mean they still don’t want or need your guidance. In fact, the transition to adulthood is one of the most vital developmental phases humans experience and teens who feel loved and supported are more likely to thrive. Here are a few ways parents can provide support during this transformative time.

Help them regulate their emotions. 

Helping your teen regulate their emotions starts with regulating your own feelings. Look for tools (e.g., meditation, breathing exercises) and interventions (e.g., individual, couple’s or family therapy) that can help you identify, understand, and cope with your own emotions so you can relate to your teen from a state of calm. Take the time to listen when your teen talks and look for ways to relate to them. You can ask, “Are you looking for support or solutions?” before jumping in to try to solve their current problems. If they don’t want your assistance, simply act as a sounding board to let them work through their own issues with logic and reasoning that lays out potential consequences.

Encourage them to get enough (quality) sleep. 

Forcing a teen to go to bed at 10 p.m. probably won’t lead to anything but resentment, especially when their circadian rhythm (i.e., natural body clock) has them wide awake until midnight or 1 a.m. Instead, talk to them about the importance of good quality sleep during this crucial developmental period and brainstorm ways to create a relaxing nighttime ritual that might help them unwind and fall asleep earlier. 

Discuss the importance of exercise and good nutrition.

With a brain that’s telling them to seek out pleasurable activities, such as playing video games, eating delicious foods, scrolling online, and communicating with friends or potential love interests, it’s difficult to stay focused on physical wellness. But you may be able to find common ground by finding a motivating factor to keep your teen wanting to look and feel their best. Foster a conversation to encourage your teen to come up with their own reasons for wanting to get or stay healthy. It might be sports, dating, mental health, socialization, or even a family health history that drives them to invest in their health.

Support them in planning. 

With the prefrontal cortex taking a backseat to the amygdala during the teen years, many parents feel the need to take the reins on everything from homework and scheduling to college planning and part-time employment. But completely taking over these managerial roles can take away from necessary skill-building that teens will need as they venture toward independence. Instead of steering the ship, have regular check-ins with your teen to discuss their goals, including both the why and how behind reaching them.

Keep the lines of communication open. 

Perhaps the most important factor in determining the success of a teen’s transition to adulthood is resiliency. Can they bounce back from failure knowing they have a soft landing at home among loving and supportive parents? Can they learn from their mistakes in order to try again? Do they feel as though they can talk to you without judgment or criticism to help them work through feelings, obstacles, and setbacks? Be the parent your teen can turn to for unconditional love when times get tough. It can mean the difference between feeling alone and defeated—or feeling like they just need to regroup before taking on the world again. 

For more, listen to this episode: Raising Resilient Teens in the Era of Anxiety