How do brains develop in the teenage years?

The teenage years are a critical time for your child’s brain development, which makes guiding them into adulthood all the more important.

Given the chance, we’d probably all like to forget at least some aspects of our teenage years.

From the awkward adolescence to feeling like the whole world was against you, that period likely isn’t your most cherished childhood memory – and that’s not counting the acne.

For parents, your child’s teenage years can be some of the toughest to navigate, and from underachieving at school to developing problematic behaviours, it can be hard to know how to help guide them to the next stage of their lives.

Adult under construction

“Almost 99 percent of the parents we see don’t understand how their teenager’s brain works – that makes it very difficult to understand them,” explains Razan Nabulsi, founder of Dots & Links Skills Development Center. “Teenagers might look and sound like adults, but they’re not and their brains are very different.”

With commonly cited stereotypical teenage behaviours including not listening, having mood swings and impulsiveness, as a parent you could be forgiven for thinking it’s just bad behaviour. In reality, the situation is a little more complex; their brain’s grey matter is busy growing up, creating new connections and weeding out the unused ones.

“During the teenage years, a lot of things are happening in the brain,” Razan adds. “The prefrontal cortex – which is in charge of logical thinking and emotional regulation – is the part of the brain that develops last, usually by the mid-20s. Teenagers usually depend on the amygdala, which is very much about emotional thinking and impulsive behaviours.

“Another thing that happens during this time is pruning. This is where the ‘use it or lose it’ principle applies to teenage brains; the brain wants to be more efficient. For example, if they played a musical instrument during childhood but stop during their teenage years, they may lose that skill.”

Emotional response

While this pruning process also means it’s a good time to pick up a new skill for life, Razan warns that the right balance has to be struck between academic achievement and your teen’s emotional needs.

“Parents who want to control their teenagers fail, because you need to understand their emotional development as well,” she notes. “Understand how their brains work and that they’re basing their decisions on a part of their brain that’s not very logical.

“At that age, all they want is to be part of their peer group and have friends. They have a real need to be adventurous. If you keep pushing them and don’t give them space to breathe, that’s when you see these power struggles.

“Often, as parents, we forget that they need unstructured time,” Razan advises. “We want them to go to school, do well in everything, go to clubs and football – but they need enough time to feel free.

“Have high expectations of your child, but have realistic ones – and know your child,” she adds. “Support them, look at their strengths and focus on what they can do.”

Time to talk

So how can you best connect with your teen during this time? Cut them a bit of slack, but stay engaged, says Razan: “In these years, it’s so easy to drift away. You need to keep an eye on them, but don’t be their inspector – it’s not an easy balance.

“When parents understand and have empathy, it makes your teenager more cooperative. It’s really important to connect with your child and see if there is anything that is causing them anxiety.”

In short, you’re going to have to put yourself in their shoes – after all, you were a teenager once.

“Teenagers tend to be sensitive and we often forget that,” nods Razan. “You need to make sure you maintain trust, give them some independence and try to find time to talk – but on their times, not yours. Accept them, love them and try to let them lead you.”

WORDS Camille Hogg

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