Nurturing the Amazing Teen Brain

Brain Development Impacts Future Well-Being

The way children’s brains grow during adolescence has lasting effects on their health and well-being later on in life. We know this because of exciting new research exploring the inner workings of the teen brain. Brain science offers important insight into how and why adolescents may act the way they do. And it helps guide parents on ways to support teens’ growing development.

Adolescent Brains Change at a Fast Pace

It is important to understand how the brain changes during adolescence so parents can best meet their teens’ needs. When parents meet teens where they are at developmentally, they nourish the important growth taking place. In other articles we go into the many ways the brain develops during adolescence. Here are some highlights.

  • The brain develops throughout adolescence. It is not until at least the mid-20’s that a young person’s brain fully matures to an adult brain.
  • During adolescence, the brain is highly flexible. Teenagers are constantly taking in new information and forming ideas, opinions and connections.
  • Different parts of the brain grow at different rates. Much of the passion, sensitivity and enthusiasm for new experiences common during adolescence are related to the emotion centers developing rapidly. The decision-making centers develop later. This means they have particularly well-developed emotional responses. So parents may need to offer more guidance to help them make decisions. This is especially true when emotions are running high. One strategy is to help them learn not to make important decisions while emotional. A lesson many adults need to learn as well!
  • Teen brains are constantly adapting based on experience. They generate new ways of thinking and get rid of old ideas that are no longer useful.
During adolescence, the brain is highly flexible. Teenagers are constantly taking in new information and forming ideas, opinions and connections.

Nurture Teen Brain Development

All of the developmental changes going on in teen brains prepares them for adulthood. These changes prime them to be able to make wise decisions and to think critically and creatively. During adolescence they gain skills that will help them mature into independent, thriving adults. Healthy brains are central to adolescents’ future well-being, and parents play an important role in nurturing positive brain growth.

  1. Be Warm and Supportive. Home environments have a strong influence on teens’ health and well-being. When parents give kids a loving environment and plenty of support, it promotes their physical and mental health, positive behavior and healthy brain development.
  2. Provide New Experiences. Teen brains are open to taking in lots of new information. Offer teens plenty of opportunities to learn about diverse subjects (e.g. art, music, technology, travel). This may unlock new ways of thinking about and understanding the world.
  3. Encourage Good Sleep Habits. Sleep is one of the things that allows teens’ minds and bodies to recover and grow. Parents must help them balance demands from school, work, peers, and extracurricular activities so they can get enough sleep. Regulate electronic use — using devices in bed interferes with sleep quality.  Encourage down time before bed. Help them learn that a relaxed mind more easily drifts to sleep.
  4. Promote Exercise. Being physically active is central to health. Exercise offers many benefits to young (and old!) people. It doesn’t have to be an organized sport. Invite your teens on a walk, to participate in a yoga class, shoot hoops, or ride bikes. Encourage them to find an exercise they can do on their own throughout their lives. Examples include biking, running, hiking, and swimming.
  5. Offer Healthy Foods. A well-balanced diet is important for teen brain development. Ensure their diets include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and fish. Healthy eating is also known to reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart conditions
  6. Reduce Stress Levels. Stress impacts the ability to think clearly and puts a strain on the mind and body. Childhood stress can have particularly negative consequences later in life. We can’t protect our children from all stress. But we can encourage them to take care of themselves and offer them plenty of love and support. We can also equip them with coping strategies so that they learn how to manage the stress in their lives in healthy ways.
  7. Protect from Harm. It is important that teens understand why we are against them using drugs or other harmful substances. Not because we want to control them or stop them from having fun. But because we want to keep them safe and poised to make responsible decisions. It’s also because we know these substances can be particularly harmful to the developing brain. Teens must also know we are each given only one brain and we must protect it from injury. Helmets are critical for bike riding and other sports. Seat belts are an “always” for drivers and passengers.

Empower Healthy Development

Our goal as parents is to raise young people to become thriving adults. Nourishing teen brain development has lasting effects on their future well-being. We do so when we are warm and supportive. When we encourage them to take care of their bodies. Protect them by helping them learn to manage stress in healthy ways. Enrich them by offering, as best as we are able, a range of experiences from which they can continue to learn and grow. Empower them by helping them to understand such experiences surround us in our daily lives — often at little or no cost.

Image by: Aisa Binhashim (2019)


Adolescents Are Super Learners!

Their brains are rapidly taking in information that will last a lifetime.


Teen Brains are Highly Sensitive

Learning doesn’t just happen at school. Adolescents digest information constantly from the media, through social interactions, and during daily experiences. Their brains are highly sensitive to surroundings and experiences.


Teen Brains Are Effective

Adolescents experience learning at a pace that is matched only during the first three years of life. Their brains may learn and retain some things more effectively than adult brains!


Teen Brains are Flexible

Adolescent brains are wired to seek and gain new knowledge. Part of the way they do so is by trying and experiencing new things. They are constantly generating new ways of thinking and getting rid of old ideas that are no longer useful.


Teen Brains Respond to Reward

Adolescents stretch their limits to seek rewards. This is exactly what they must do to learn as much as possible. This can actually make learning easier and it assures they will seek rewarding experiences.

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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