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Trying to Understand Your Teens Behavior? Look to the Brain.

Trying to Understand Your Teen’s Behavior? Look to the Brain

By Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT, Topic Expert, February 26, 2018,

The teen years can be challenging for parents. Adjusting to your teen’s changing behaviors and emotional shifts can cause any parent to question their parenting and wonder, “Where did I go wrong?” To make matters even more difficult, the pre-adolescent years with our children are often filled with closeness, shared activities, and a deep understanding of who your child is and where they are headed.

The suspected cause for erratic teen behavior has long been “raging hormones,” but recent research has indicated the changing teen brain is the real culprit of our teenagers’ sometimes confusing actions. Therapist Lisa Damour states, “The changes in your daughter’s brain and the events that occur around her are more likely to shape her mood than the hormonal shifts occurring inside of her.”

If you have been a parent in the last 10-15 years, you know how much emphasis is placed on the first three years of a child’s life. The federal government funds early childhood education programs such as Head Start (8.6 billion dollars in 2014), and parents of young children are constantly bombarded with information about attachment parenting, brain-healthy activities, and brain-sensitive discipline strategies.

In terms of major developmental changes in the brain, the adolescent years are second only to the early childhood years. The teen brain is under constant reorganization and restructuring, and these changes call for attention, to these years in general but also to brain-based parenting strategies.

According to Clark & Clark (2016), the two main processes occurring in the teen brain are pruning and myelination.

  • Pruning refers to the removal of unused, damaged or degraded neural pathways. This allows parts of the brain to work more efficiently.

  • Myelination describes the process in which the axon of each neuron is coated with myelin, which protects the neurons and is essential for the nervous system to function properly

Not only is the brain constantly changing during the teen years, many areas of it are still in development. Below are a list of several brain structures that undergo changes during the teen years. Understanding how they change and why can help you understand the effects on your teen’s behavior.

  • Limbic system: The emotional center of the brain, which is pruned and myelinated during the teenage years, is highly aroused as a result of this transformation. This arousal is why teens feel intense highs and lows during this developmental phase.

  • Prefrontal cortex: This area of the brain, considered the “control center,” is responsible for functions such as planning, judgment, decision-making, and self-regulation. This is the part of the brain that develops last. It is not fully developed, in fact, until the early twenties. Thus, while teenagers are faced with any number of temptations and often expected to make major life decisions, they may lack the brain capacity to do so.

  • Nucleus accumbens (NAc): This area of the brain plays a major role in processing of pleasure, motivation, and reinforcement learning, primarily by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter closely associated with pleasure. The teen brain has a lower level of baseline dopamine, and the levels of dopamine released during an experience are actually higher during the teenage years. The combination of a lower level of baseline dopamine and a higher intensity of good feelings, when dopamine is released, can lead teens to continually seek out more thrilling experiences.

  • Temporal lobe: This area, responsible for high-level auditory processing and language, is still undergoing pruning and does not reach its gray matter maximum until the teen years. As a result, teens might experience confusion and have difficulty communicating with adults.

Parenting Strategies to Accommodate the Changing Brain

How can we take this information into account and incorporate the changes occurring in our teenagers’ brains into our parenting strategies?

Studies indicate there are two different dimensions of parenting, with specific parenting styles falling along these dimensions by varying degrees.

Every stage of raising a child presents a new set of challenges and rewards. You may feel daunted by the new challenges posed by the teen years, but education and understanding will help you navigate them with greater ease.

The first is the affection dimension. At one end are parents who are accepting, responsive, and child-centered, while parents who are rejecting, unresponsive and parent-centered are at the other end. The second dimension is associated with control strategies. At one end of the dimension are parents who are undemanding and low in control, while parents who are demanding and high in control are at the other end.

Research shows that parents who are high in control and high in acceptance (strict but loving, in other words) will most likely have teenagers who are independent and confident. Parents who are high in control and low in acceptance, on the other hand, more often have children who are not independent or confident. Studies further show parents high in acceptance and low in control may often have teenagers who are highly impulsive and less responsible. (Pipher, 1994).

Now that you have a better knowledge of exactly what is going on in your teenager’s brain, I’d like to offer some additional tips that can help you during this time.

  1. Pick your battles: Determine when to (and when not to) intervene in your child’s decision-making. When it comes to major decisions or important aspects of life, such as college, career, or friendships, your guidance can be important. If your teen wants to try a new activity or experiment with a new look, however, consider letting them experience this without trying to influence them.

  2. Have compassion: Don’t excuse reckless behavior, but try to understand where your teen is coming from when they fail to use the best judgment. Think of ways to compassionately guide them by helping them to identify possible choices and desired outcomes, as well as the pros and cons of each possible choice.

  3. Avoid comparing their teenage self to their younger self: Parents often complain about how things have changed and how things “used to be.” Perhaps they say something like, “Well, you used to tell me everything.” Avoid the desire to do this. Instead, rather than focusing on the negative, try to identify positive things about your teen and communicate these things to them frequently. With the constant changes they are experiencing, teens may frequently feel insecure. Contributing to these insecurities will not help your teen develop.

Every stage of raising a child presents a new set of challenges and rewards. You may feel daunted by the new challenges posed by the teen years, but education and understanding will help you navigate them with greater ease. If you feel like you or your teenager(s) need additional help, consider contacting a licensed professional who specializes in working with teenagers and their parents.


  1. Clark, J., & Clark, J. (2016). Your teenager is not crazy: Understanding your teen’s brain can make you a better parent. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

  2. Damour, L. (2016). It’s not just hormones: What’s really happening in the minds of teenage girls? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from:

  3. Inequality showdown: Early childhood education. (2015, November 9). Retrieved from

  4. Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Newport Beach, California

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