The Adolescent Brain: They Are Not “Little Adults”

By Emily Roberts MA, LPC

“It’s like an alien took over my sweet daughter once she hit puberty.” A mom recently told me.  “Is she going to be like this forever?  My answer, “No, but you need to understand what her brain is going through in order to help her through adolescence.”  Teens today are often making adult decisions at an age where developmentally their brains are not equipped to do so.  By thinking that our teens are “little adults” and that they “should” be able to make the best decisions or handle teenage stressors with ease (yes “drama” with her clique is a stressor), we are setting them up for failure and ourselves up for insanity.

Here are 10 common cognitive thinking errors in adolescents, any sound familiar?

1.  Black and white thinking:  parents are awesome or awful.

2.  All or nothing thinking.  “If I you don’t let me go to the concert I will never be popular.”

3.  Over-generalized thinking. “Everyone else’s parents let them watch R-movies.”

4. Imaginary Audience Syndrome. The adolescents believe that everyone is watching and preoccupied with the smallest details of his or her life.  “Everyone is going to notice my pimple; I can’t go to school today.”

5.  Egocentric thoughts; finding it difficult to focus on anyone else’s experience. “I do all the chores around here!  You never help out.”  They are not aware (in this moment) that you go to work and pay the bills.

6.  Emotional reasoning.  If I feel something it must be true.  “If I don’t get those new jeans, I will never fit in.”

7.  Myth of personal invulnerability; impervious thoughts.  “I won’t get in a car accident, I won’t get pregnant, I don’t need to protect myself.”

8.  Present-orientated.  Focus is on short term, immediate gratification.  “I need that new video game today.”

9.  Serious miscalculations about adult wisdom; or the belief that adults know both more and less than they do. “They will never understand what I am going through, times are different”.

10.  Preoccupation with right and wrong; fairness.  Teenagers have a long list of shoulds, oughts, and high expectations for others especially parents.  “I should be able to go to that party, I am 15 and that is mature.”

Research has always supported that the adolescent brain is still developing in the teen years.  In fact maturation continues into ones 20’s. The reason for impulsivity and poor decision making is not because they are trying to rebel or their hormones are going crazy, it is actually due to the change in brain regions. Due to fast-growing synapses, pruning , and sections of the brain that remain unconnected, it leaves teens more prone to impulsive behavior and defiance; not because they want to make bad decisions, but often because they truly cant think before they act.

Harvard researchers and physicians Dr. David K. Urion and Dr. Frances E. Jensen report “The brain grows and continually changes in young people, it is only about 80 percent developed in adolescents…The last section to connect is the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment.  Normally this mental merger is not completed until sometime between 25-30 years old.”

A study by Psychologist Deborah Yurgelun-Todd who used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of adolescence and see what areas are more impaired.  She found:

Frontal lobe- is restructured in the teenage years and is responsible for self-control, judgment, and emotional regulation

Corpus Callosum- does not reach full maturity until ones early 20’s and is responsible for intelligence, consciousness and self awareness

Parietal Lobes- immature until around age 16; responsible for integrating auditory, visual, and tactile signals

Temporal lobes- still developing after age 16; is responsible for emotional maturity, reading others behavior and rational thought.

What does all this mean?  The brain changes during adolescence, risk perception decreases, teens seek higher levels of stimulation to achieve pleasure, impulsivity is difficult to control, and a more egocentric individual emerges.  If parents understand that this is part of development and alter their parenting style to help their children (and family) work with this new brain, we will see more harmony in the home, well adjusted teens and in turn, more functional adults.

My next post will continue on the topic of parenting the adolescent brain, and discuss communication strategies for building successful relationships with you and your teen.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Emily Roberts, LPC, Emily Roberts, LPC. Emily Roberts, LPC said: Check out my blog on the adolescent brain and why #teens are not "little adults" let me know your thoughts ;) [...]

  2. chris says:

    Hi Emily
    Thanks for this post – very clear and helpful summary of main cognitive changes that occur during adolescence. The mistake of thinking teens are “little adults” seems to be happening more and more, and hence more & more parents get frustrated and surprised by their teenagers actions. This type of information is really important and can help avoid a lot of adult confusion.

    Keep up the great work.


  3. admin says:

    Thanks Chris! Glad you found it helpful, lots of us forget what it was like to be a teen. I hope this helps parents understand the neurological underpinnings.
    Take Care,


  4. [...] The Adolescent Brain: They Are Not “Little Adults” – Neurogistics Blog [...]

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