Get to Know How the Teen Brain Works

Understand the Science Behind the Teen Brain

Having an understanding of brain and behavioral sciences allows parents to help shape, support, and protect adolescent development. Research findings give us new ways of understanding things that common sense tells us are true, such as:

  • Adolescents can display strong emotions
  • Teens enjoy testing limits
  • Adult guidance shapes teens
  • Adolescents learn at a remarkably rapid pace

Parents play a critical and protective role in the lives of tweens and teens. Dr. Daniel Romer, a leading psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, proposes a helpful model that explains how the brain is maturing during adolescence. The teen years are a time where new experiences are needed to maximize learning. What is learned during adolescence becomes the knowledge that will last a lifetime. Some of those experiences may involve risk because there is so much to learn right beyond the boundaries of what was previously known.

Even though changes going on in the body and brain may lead to risk taking, parents can steer teens away from risk by providing positive and meaningful social experiences. Helping to create these experiences is an important way that parents matter. Here are 6 ways parents can support healthy development.

6 Opportunities to Maximize Learning

Maximizing learning is about so much more than school. It is also about supporting healthy sensation seeking. Development is happening before our eyes and the brain our teens build determines their future success. Adolescents are super learners. They take in what we teach them formally and informally – they learn what is expected from them and what is “normal.”

It is important that teens are exposed to knowledge and experiences that help them to reach their potential. This means looking for ways to create, reinforce, and enhance the environments in which our teens are learning. To make them enriching and nurturing. This is not about putting pressure on our teens to excel. Nor is it about exposing them to every possible activity. It is about providing positive experiences and modeling what an emotionally healthy, thoughtful, and engaged adult looks like.

1) Create Opportunities for Safe Exploration

We must learn to accept that adolescents are wired to take risks and seek out pleasure and excitement. We should support this as part of a commitment to be the on the side of development — to trust that our teens are doing what they must to grow. These “sensations” promote learning. Teens are driven to find thrilling, new experiences both to expand their knowledge and to gain the life lessons that will carry them into adulthood.

Our job as parents is to guide our teens towards thrills they will grow from and away from those that may harm them. Life is full of opportunities to test limits and to have moments that take our breath away. Trying out for a school play or a sports team. Asking another teen out for a date. Running a marathon. Diving from the high dive. Expressing deep emotions in a poetry slam. These healthy opportunities fill a neurobiological need, making it less likely teens will seek thrills elsewhere.

Adolescents are super learners. They take in what we teach them formally and informally – they learn what is expected from them and what is “normal.”

2) Create an Environment for Healthy Brain Development

The brain is the control and command center for life. It helps us think, feel, move, react, and function at every level. For the brain to develop to its full potential, young people need:

  • Appropriate sleep
  • Good nutrition
  • Love and nurturance
  • A drug free environment. (Alcohol and drugs give momentary pleasures, but are undermining, if not destructive, to healthy brain development and to emotional well-being.)
  • Manageable levels of stress. (Stress is a part of life. A little bit challenges us to adapt, improve and bring out our “A” game. Sustained and high levels of stress, however, are damaging to the brain’s emotional and physical development. We also know that adult support, even amidst high levels of stress, protects young people’s brain development.)

3) Engage Teens in Discussions that Help Them Grow

Our role as parents is to help young people consider consequences. This role is more than critical, it may even be lifesaving. We have a real opportunity to shape young people’s ability to manage the puddles they will walk through in life if we know when and how to connect to them. We connect best when we choose calm settings where the reasoning centers of a developing brain will not be flooded by emotional responses.

4) Talk to Teens in ways They can Hear

Young people absolutely understand and consider risk. They want adults to share their wisdom. By the age of 16 (earlier for some) they can problem solve at essentially the same level as adults. But, they do so only in calm settings. Their emotional centers are wired to take in information rapidly and react to it. During stressful times, their emotional centers may dominate over their rational centers — and that may prevent them from being able to problem solve. This is also true for adults. The difference is that our thinking centers are more firmly developed and we have experience and wisdom that can (usually) win the internal argument.

Consider the following tips to help teens best gain from your wisdom and experience.

  • Be calm. Easier said than done, but it is critical. If you are unable to be rational, give yourself a time-out. Practice this line: “I need a bit of space and time to think this through. I’ll get back to you. We’ll get through this together.” Modeling the active steps you take to regain composure before impulsive action has value in and of itself.
  • Be sincere. One of the greatest traits our tweens and teens possess is their ability to read people. It is an exciting developmental process that is central to building empathy and meaningful relationships. Their ability to do this is “on fire” and not yet fully sophisticated. This means they sometimes over-read our body language or tone of voice. Work through your own thoughts before you offer advice. Usually a little time and space will help you accurately assess a situation and approach it in an even-keeled, reassuring manner.
  • Don’t lecture. When a young person is upset, it is pretty hard for them to problem solve. When you deliver your advice by lecturing, your child will grasp your disappointment, understand your anger, and absorb your fear, but will likely miss the true message. Talk with them, not at them. Give them time to process what you are saying.

5) Balance Love and Boundaries

Balanced parents offer plenty of love AND boundaries. Love only counts when our children know they are loved. Rules are most effective when our children understand they are in place to protect rather than control them. Decades of research tell us that children raised by parents who practice a balanced style perform best in school, are most emotionally healthy, and engage in the fewest risk behaviors. And, they have the closest and most communicative relationships with their parents.

Remember that ALL teens must test their limits to maximize their learning and brain development. They are driven to do this because of their highly active reward centers that push them towards sensation seeking. This means all adolescents need caring, protective boundaries. However, that subset of young people who are truly impulsive will need firmer boundaries, since they are less likely to learn quickly from consequences. “Balance” is about what is right for your teen. What matters is that your child knows these boundaries exist because you care for them, not because you are trying to control them.

6) Support Healthy Peer Relationships

So much of what we have been discussing is about priming teens to become social adults who can work with others and have meaningful relationships. Peer pressure can be a positive influence when peers reign each other in and decide together to avoid certain risky behaviors. In positive peer environments, they teach each other not to  repeat mistakes. You can’t pick your kids’ friends. You can give them opportunities to surround themselves with peers that will shape them positively. If your teen is in a peer group that puts them at risk, your rules have to be firmer because brain science (and human history) tells us that people behave more impulsively in groups than as individuals.

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Tie it Together

To support healthy adolescent brain development, indeed development in general, we must:

  1. Provide safe opportunities for exploration.
  2. Provide a protective, nurturing environment.
  3. Engage adolescents in discussions in which they will learn and grow.
  4. Consider a balanced parenting style that includes warmth as well as setting safe boundaries.
  5. Support healthy peer relationships.
  6. Help teens develop calm, rational decision-making skills by modeling how thoughtful decisions are made.

The core developmental questions of adolescence are huge and often complicated: “Who am I?”, “Am I normal?”, “Do I fit in?”. Our teens will be best able to begin answering these questions when, as parents, we create the kind of environment necessary for optimal development. What we know is that children most successfully grow when we create calm settings that allow them to do their best thinking. And when we promote safe and appropriate risk-taking.

Remember, their developing brains are telling them they must seek new opportunities and take chances. Parents play a crucial role in providing the boundaries that allow for necessary trial and error and position tweens and teens to become resilient, capable young adults.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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