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What's Going on in the Adolescent Brain?

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What's Going on in the Adolescent Brain?

Stacy Rosenblum

For all parents, raising adolescents can be a time of great successes and great challenges. The drama, good and bad, may feel like a neverending rollercoaster for some. There are reasons for every mood shift, every grasp for independence, every push back against authority -- and it all lies in the brain.

Changes happen quickly during adolescence. Not only in the bodies of kids but also in their brains. As Dr. Dana Dorfman explains in the following clip, excerpted from our recent webinar, the brains of teens develop rapidly, and they need parents and teachers to provide them with boundaries and support in order to maximize their intellectual and emotional development.


During the teen years, the brain becomes intellectually able. They can now understand and begin to grapple with complex issues like ethics, morality, decision making, and independence.  

At the same time, the emotional center of the limbic system is in hyperdrive.  Teens may swing wildly in their emotions and experience their feelings more deeply than ever before. They may act like little preachers, expounding on matters that didn’t seem so important just a short time ago. They may also cycle through changing points of view or become completely committed to a specific cause.

These experiences are how teens learn about themselves and the world in which they inhabit. As frustrating as it can be to live with such a dynamic, emotional individual, teens need parents to continue to set and reinforce boundaries. In essence, parents must provide the guardrails inside their brain’s proverbial information highway system.

Parents should allow their growing kids to engage in more independent experiences and make decisions for themselves, but within limits. The frontal lobe is just developing at this age, and it is the area of the brain that is most responsible for judgement and sound decision making, as well as impulse control.

We want our teens to exercise their frontal lobe but to be guided by a set of standards or expectations put in place by adults. The goal is to give teens access to new, yet safe experiences in which to exercise the newly developed parts of their brains.

In order to achieve this, parents should discuss new experiences with their kids prior to letting them embark on their own. For example, if a child is traveling independently, driving, or staying home alone for the first time, expectations and limits should be made clear. Boundaries make kids feel safe and provide them an element of control over new situations. 

It’s important for teens to have opportunities to use their new intellectual and emotional facilities. They should be encouraged to take smart risks and try new activities. Parents (and teachers) can help them make good decisions and act as a sounding board for new ideas. Teens need adults to model for them what proper judgement, impulse control, and problem solving looks like, as well as strategies for engaging in these everyday tasks independently.

So, next time your teen explodes with emotion or tries a new daredevil stunt, try to remember that it’s their growing brain which compels them to act this way. The best course of action is to provide the guardrails to keep them on the road to mature development with consistent boundaries and lots of opportunities for dialogue.