Teen brain development
Colleen Gengler, Extension Educator — Family Relations
Revised May 2016 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Department of Family Social Science.
Your child's brain is not fully mature until sometime in their mid-twenties; a little earlier for girls and a little later for boys. Researchers used to think that teen's brains were mature, but didn't have the same experiences to draw on. Now with technologies like fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and other scanning tools, we can track the development of the brain to see the changes that occur from childhood through adulthood.
How the Brain Develops
- The brain develops from back to front. Brain development occurs from the brain stem at the back of the neck beginning in infancy to the prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain into the early to mid-twenties.
- The brain is developing at the same time that other physical, emotional, and cognitive or mental changes occur. Billions of new connections between brain cells are being formed, and are contributing to the other changes your teen is experiencing.
- The brain helps shape how physical, emotional, and social changes occur. Repeated experiences, activities, and patterns of behavior build connections in the brain. The brain prunes (eliminates) connections that are infrequently experienced. In other words, teens' experiences affect brain development and the connections that are made over time: they "use it or lose it."
The part of the brain that develops last, the prefrontal cortex, contributes to planning and decision-making abilities. The prefrontal cortex has a part in:
- Controlling impulses.
- Inhibiting inappropriate behavior.
- Shifting or adjusting behavior when situations change.
- Organizing a sequence of actions toward a goal.
- Forming strategies and planning behavior.
- Setting priorities among tasks and goals.
- Developing empathy.
- Developing greater sensitivity to feedback from others.
Knowing that teens are still developing in these areas can help parents understand teen behavior and decide how to best support learning and development. For example, if a parent gives a teen a list of chores, the parent may be surprised when the teen doesn't start on what the parent considers the most urgent chore. To understand the teen’s behavior, the parent can recognize that starting on the list of chores requires skills in organizing a sequence of actions, setting priorities, and making decisions. To support learning and development, the parent can approach this as a teaching moment and coach the teen through prioritizing tasks. What’s most important is that parents realize the teen brain is developing, just like teens are developing — physically, socially, and emotionally — and experiences and learning opportunities contribute to that development.
What Parents Can Do
- Support your teen by providing guidance, giving reminders and suggestions.
- Avoid labeling decisions or choices as "stupid." Try to understand decisions from your teen’s perspective and use opportunities to teach decision-making processes.
- Talk with teens about potentially challenging situations (e.g., with peers or alcohol use). Have them practice how they will deal with those situations when they do come up. For tips on talking with teens about challenging situations, see the fact sheets under Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk-taking, risk preference, and risky decision-making in adolescence and adulthood: An experimental study. Developmental Psychology, 41, 625-635.
McNeely, C., & Blanchard, J. (2010). The teen years explained: A guide to healthy adolescent development. Baltimore: Center for Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Simpson, A. R. (2001). Raising teens: A synthesis of research and a foundation for action. Boston: Center for Health Communication, Harvard School of Public Health.
Steinberg, L. (2008). Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Families with Teens: Parent Resources — These resources will help you as parents to further understand and address some of the challenges that you and your teen may be facing. Includes more fact sheets in the Teen Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents of Teens series.
Teens and risk-taking — Understand how teens make decisions, the positive and negatives aspects of risk-taking, and what parents can do. Part of the Teen Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents of Teens series.
What’s Normal for Teen development? — Learn about the biological, physical, social, and emotional changes that are occurring for teens and get tips for what parents can do. Download the entire fact sheet: What's normal for teen development?. Part of the Teen Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents of Teens series.
Why Do They Act That Way? — David Walsh, PhD — This revised and updated book helps explain why teens act the way they do and what parents and teachers can do about it.
The Teen Years Explained — Clea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This book and website can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.