Judgment Call:
Understanding the Teenage Brain

Guest post by Amy Williams

Have you heard the saying: "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck?"

This phrase works great for identifying plants or animals. Typically if an object exhibits certain traits, then it is more than likely to be that item or fall into the same category. However, teenagers are the exception to this rule and saying.

Teenagers might look like adults, complete with facial hair or carefully applied makeup. They may hold jobs, drive cars, register to vote, and serve in our military. Our teenagers crave adult treatment and insist that they are ready to handle to responsibility that accompanies age.

Anybody with teenagers, however, knows that teens are different from adults in a few key ways. The types of decisions teens can make, that can be baffling or unbelievable to many parents, are testament to this fact.

The Developing Teenage Brain

Contrary to popular belief, teenagers are still in the midst of important developments in their brains. An adolescent may look and carry on like an adult, but his or her brain is not functioning on an adult level. Researchers have discovered that the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25.

During adolescence, the brain is about 80% developed. The last section of the human brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex. This lobe is responsible for controlling judgment and self-control. Emotions and hormones are actively reshaping this area and over time create new connections which lead to maturity.

Similar to early childhood brain growth, the adolescent years see another surge of brain development. It is important to encourage positive connections during this stage. It is our job as parents to ensure our teens have the best chance at a productive adult life.

Decoding Teen Behaviors

The transitional teenage years are full of risk factors heavily influenced by hormones and emotions. These fluctuations have the ability to affect a teen’s brain development which makes them more susceptible to poorer impulse control and peer pressure.

These biological forces are the reason between the ages of 15 to 19 people face higher mortality and injury rates. Crime and alcohol abuse are also elevated during this age span when compared to other age groups.

Thankfully, most adolescents emerge unharmed from these tumultuous years, but understanding how a child’s maturity and the teenage brain shape their rational thinking helps shed light on their behaviors.

This understanding allows us to no longer antagonize our teenage children, but relate to how they may have come to these decisions. That doesn’t mean they should get off scot-free necessarily, but that approaching teens with love and understanding, even when it may seem more tough than usual, is best for everyone, and will build a stronger, more effective parent-child relationship.

Parenting the Adolescent Brain

Predicting an adolescent’s disposition can be a tricky endeavor. It can be similar to the hit-and-miss weather forecasts on the six o’clock news. Researchers are gathering data to help us understand the development of an adolescent’s brain and their judgment skills.

Teens are undergoing radical physical and chemical changes in their bodies. Awkwardness and impaired rationalizing skills are almost guaranteed to go hand-in-hand with adolescence. They may not plan to be squalling mad or twisting with laughter at 10 minute intervals, but their anatomy is being flooded with mixed signals which are out of their control.

Their brains process information and learn quickly, but they are more susceptible to the effects of sleep deprivation, alcohol, and sensory overload. Teens are still learning how to decode emotions and correctly read facial expressions which can lead to misunderstandings or appropriate responses to situations.

This can lead to a lot of the confusion that accompanies teenage years. It’s not that teens are not perceptive of some of these signals, but that they become harder to interpret during this volatile brain state.

Holding On For the Ride

As parents, there are times it might feel like we are “going quackers”. We can witness a wide fluctuation of teen behaviors on any given day. One minute they are good as gold--yes, sometimes even polite and well mannered. Then, suddenly in a flash: they are slamming doors and crying in their rooms.

Taking an in depth look at how a teenage brain develops and matures can help remove some of the mystery behind a juvenile’s actions. Maintaining open lines of communication, setting clear expectations, and proper guidance can help families navigate the adolescent years.

This can lead to, for example, setting up a system of forgiveness with your teen. If your teen behaves poorly in a way that’s out-of-character or unhabitual, consider taking a look at what may have led to this decision, and forgiving.

The good news is that science and parental direction can enrich a teen’s overall experience and brain development.

For more information, see the infographic below.

Infographic teenage brain development

Portrait of guest blogger Amy WilliamsAmy Williams

Amy Williams is a journalist based in Southern California.

As a mother of two, she has learned a lot of things the hard way, and hopes to use her experience as a parent to help other parents raise their children to be the best that they can be.

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