The Teen Brain

Teens today are given access to the adult world unlike any other time in history. At a time when developmentally they need as much supervision as when they were toddlers, most parents turn a blind eye. Just because your teen looks mature, doesn’t mean they can handle and manage adult responsibility effectively, most commonly with technology. 

If Jaylen Fryberg’s parents were monitoring his social media do you think the Marysville shooting would’ve occurred this week? Tweets that threatened others and suicidal posts showed he was in pain and clearly unable ask for help, instead he used his social media profiles to talk about his feelings.

“[You're] gonna piss me off…and then some [stuff's] gonna go down and I don’t think you’ll like it…” “[F] it! Might as well die now.” Jaylen tweeted.

Does he sound like a kid who could control himself or self-regulate? If his parents knew about this do you think they would’ve helped him get the help he needed? I certainly hope so. Do you think this shooting could have been prevented if parents were supervising social media, I sure do.

brain maturity

Look at the research from above, does a it look like they can resist the urge to tweet about their feelings, pause before they post something incriminating on Facebook? If your teens behavior and attitude at home makes you wish they could bite their tongue then it is likely they are over-expressive and under-effective online, leading to a messy digital footprint. They are making adult decisions oat an age where developmentally their brains are not equipped to do so.  Just because they look like “little adults” doesn’t mean we should treat them as such. them up for failure and ourselves up for insanity.

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 impulsive behavior and poor decision making isn’t just due hormones, 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.

The Teen Brain Changes

FRONTLINE’s “Inside the Teenage Brain” focuses on work done by Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., together with colleagues at McGill University in Montreal. Giedd.  This fascinating series is worth watching.  his colleagues found that in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, the brain appeared to be growing again just before puberty. The prefrontal cortex sits just behind the forehead. It is particularly interesting to scientists because it acts as the CEO of the brain, controlling planning, working memory, organization, and modulating mood. As the prefrontal cortex matures, teenagers can reason better, develop more control over impulses and make judgments better. In fact, this part of the brain has been dubbed “the area of sober second thought.” So it’s now wonder teens have trouble with managing emotions and controlling behavior, their brains wont let them!

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.

10 Common Cognitive Thinking Errors in Adolescents

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.”


Instead of being friends with your teen try putting up some so that you can save their lives.  The more you create a healthy paranoia, cheicking their phones, helping them set up safe social media profiles, and setting up time away from technology the more they will be safe from making poor decisoins online and in person.

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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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