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Understanding the teen brain

Parenting is hard. The teenage years are such an important time in life for teens to learn independence, set a foundation for the future and learn about themselves. It’s also a time the brain is still growing. We often see teens make choices without thinking of what will happen next. If you are a caregiver of a teen, here’s some information that can help guide you in your role.

The developing teen brain

There tends to be this idea that our brains are magically mature when we turn 18, but science is showing us this is not the case.

What we know is that our brains continue to mature into the mid and even late 20s. While we start driving at 16 and it’s legal to drink alcohol at 21, it doesn't necessarily mean our brains are ready for this, or that we are prepared to make good decisions at these cutoffs.

It's really important to think about the way the teenage brain is developing. What we know is that the sensation-seeking parts of the brain are curious and interested in novelty. This means that teens will naturally be interested in sex and screens and many risky behaviors. The judgment centers of our brain, the part that really helps us to stop think twice if it is a good decision we are making, they're really not online fully until later adolescence and early adulthood. So we have a bit of a mismatch. We've got sensation seeking and impulsivity paired with difficulty stopping ourselves. It can be a pretty difficult mix for teenagers.

Risk and impulsivity

Every teen can be impulsive. It’s just how the brain works before it’s fully developed. Teens can feel exhilarating highs and deep lows. These emotions are what some parents blame for tough parenting during the teen years. As parents, there are a few things we can do to make sure a teen’s impulsivity doesn’t lead to devastating consequences.

  • Ask the tough questions. What may feel uncomfortable to you could be a life-saving conversation for your teen. Try to not shy away from the questions you need to ask about safety, health and feelings, including thoughts about suicide.
  • Lock up more than you think. You may think your child would never touch your firearm or medications to cause harm to themselves. Research is clear on this, that quick access increases risk. Limiting access can save lives because sometimes teens act without thinking through the consequences. While you can’t control your teen, you can control how you store items in your home, like firearms and medications.
  • Assuring adult guidance: Teens often send the message that they don’t need adult support or supervision. It is a tough time as they are trying to separate and become adults. But we know that teens who have a trusted adult that they can turn to are more likely to reach out if they need help. Remember that sometimes teens feel more comfortable reaching out to a coach, a grandparent, an aunt or a neighbor. Sometimes kids don’t want to disappoint their parents or don’t feel comfortable coming to us. The goal is that they come to someone. It is protective for young people to have several trusted adults in their lives. As a parent it’s important to check in with our kids, and also to encourage other trusted relationships as well.

Even the best of caregivers will need help during the teen years. It’s such a difficult time to navigate through all the emotions, independence and new challenges. Watch our free video series, Prepped and Ready: Experts Edition for more tips. 

Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, University of Kansas School of Medicine

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