Teens 101: Brain development

“Who are you, and what have you done with my real child?”

[Information in this article comes mostly from Inside the Teenage Brain, a Frontline documentary and online coverage from PBS]


Imaging studies have shown that adolescence is a tumultuous time for brain development. The teen years involve personality changes, mystifying family interactions, and unique vulnerability to dangerous substances, inane music and regrettable fashion choices – which is to say, science is confirming what parents knew anyway. What does it all mean for teens and their families?

Responsibility, judgment, impulse control, reasoning and decision-making

These are functions of the frontal cortex, which undergoes a growth spurt shortly before puberty but does not fully mature until the mid-late twenties. Consequently, adolescence is the stage when people are most drawn to risky behavior like experimenting with alcohol and drugs, and are most vulnerable to addiction.

For some, the consequences are long-term. “If they’re doing drugs or alcohol it may not just be affecting their brains for that night or that weekend but for the next 80 years of their lives,” said Jay Giedd, M.D., who heads the Unit on Brain Imaging in the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Don’t panic. This is what this web site’s all about.

Everyday family communication

Recent work suggests that teen brains process information differently from adult brains. “The teenager is not going to take the information that is in the outside world, and organize it and understand it the same way we do,” said Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, now director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at The Brain Institute, University of Utah.

In other words, conversations about chores or homework might not be as clear to teens as parents assume. “A lot of the time they’re just not paying attention. Either they heard that information, but they didn’t really register it, or they heard it and they thought it was OK to do it later. Or they heard it, but whatever came on TV seemed more important,” said Dr. Yurgelun-Todd. “They somehow have reorganized that information, so they’re not really trying to disappoint you or frustrate you. It’s just that they saw it in a different light.” (We at B-CASA understand this to mean: Patience.)

The importance of varied activity

The development of the cerebellum in adolescence is likely to influence teens’ abilities and interests for the rest of their lives. “Anything we can think of as higher thought, mathematics, music, philosophy, decision-making, social skill, draws upon the cerebellum,” said Dr. Giedd. He emphasized the “use it or lose it” principle: “If a teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.” Horrible, yes — but  the readings and viewings below will see you through.

The benefits of mindfulness

Your teen doesn’t need to be a full-on Buddhist to benefit from mindfulness, the skill of attending to the moment without judgment. (Parents have much to gain here too.) Mindfulness is a way to relax and be calm, improve sleep and performance, deal with difficult feelings and relationships, and handle life’s pressures. A life long, and potentially life saving, skill.

Readings & viewings

A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain
Partnership at Drugfree.org
Enjoyable interactive site that succinctly captures the essentials

Inside the Teenage Brain documentary
PBS Frontline
A trove of information: 60 minute documentary, articles and interviews

Special issue on the teen brain
B-CASA Winter/Spring 2010
Our newsletter covers the basic facts & risks and how parents can help

Teen brain benefits from mindfulness training
Toronto Star
How mindfulness helps teens and how they can acquire it

Mindfulness for stressed teens
MentalHelp.net
Expert interview and evidence