Adolescents Anyone?

teen brains

Bad tempered, Impulsive, Risk takers, Don´t consider consequences, Clumsy communicators…

But of course, teens act this way because it´s their nature to be like that. Both teachers and parents ask: “why can´t teens act like adults?” It seems that no one remembers what it was like when they were adolescents, and many have the tendency to idealize how it was for them. Some remember being able to sit and study for long hours, wake up early and be ready to learn, and so on… well, bunch of lies, or fake memories.

Neuroscience confirms what we´ve known from experience and intuition, Adolescents are not adults, their brain is not yet fully developed. According Dr. Jay Geidd of the National Institute of Mental Health, adolescents have to contend with a brain that is destroying old neural connections and building new ones. Contrary to previous beliefs, they don´t leave childhood with a brain ready to take the responsibilities of young adulthood.

As some research show, teen brains reach adult functioning after their 20´s. (There´s a diversity of opinions that range from 25 to 30). White matter is increasing, meaning the myelination is helping the information to travel more efficiently and make more and more connections. This myelination process is done in stages. One of the last parts of the brain to receive myelin is the frontal cortex, the area responsible for abstract thinking, language and decision-making. Until the frontal lobes are completely formed, teens rely overmuch on their amygdala. Located deep in the center of the brain, it´s commonly called the alarm system of the brain. It is responsible for our emotional response to different situations. This explains why teens behaviors and reactions are more emotional whereas adults, who rely more on the frontal lobes, respond rationally.

Temporal lobes, located below the frontal lobes, primary functions is to process auditory stimuli. According researchers at the UCLA laboratory of Neuro Imaging, temporal lobes do not complete growing gray matter until the age of 16. Then, the brain begin myelination processes. Wernicke´s area, is a region in the temporal lobes, responsible for deciphering our native language. This area, performs in cooperation with Broca’s area (in the frontal lobes, part that stores vocabulary, grammar and syntax). Wernicke’s area changes our thoughts into words. During adolescence the left and right sides of the Wernicke’s area begin to be fully connected by myelination in the corpus callosum. The increase in language ability is a process developing throughout adolescence. But until then, deficiency putting into words what they feel, is what might be expected. Having trouble communicating or what translates into their own codified language is the result of this non-finished or “in the process” development.

Just taking these two late examples, the result is a complicated one. Teens feel things before they can regulate or articulate them. Sheryl Feinstein in Secrets of the Teenage Brain states: “They feel an emotion but lack the ability to express it in a socially appropriate way, amplifying the frustration between the adolescent and the people who share their world”.(pages 87,88)

Awareness and learning about all this difficult transition going on in the teenage brain, give adults the possibility to take the lead on how to behave around them. Instead of expecting them to think and behave in ways they are by nature unable, adults have to re think and plan their interactions with them in order to get better results to benefit them and come out unharmed.

Actually thanks to MRI’S, the new imaging technology, it is possible to look inside the brain and we can have an explanation of what is going on with teenager’s brains and use this information wisely. Instead of complaining about their bizarre behavior, it’s time to take advantage of their nature while it lasts.


Let´s challenge and change our perspective. Adolescents need most of their behaviors in order for them to adapt and to be able to perform and adjust to the adult demands. The process they go through, prepare them to leave the security of their homes and do the transition to a complex world.

Emotional rather than logical: the search for strong emotions and risky behaviors, the more emotional reactions, and their impulsiveness actually help in being so passionate about their ideas that make them go beyond idealists and actually pursue them. This tend to diminish with age. So sad for us, adults who find so many obstacles were there probably is hope. Because they will not think about consequences, since they think more about the reward, the results, no matter what, they sometimes achieve the unthinkable.

Although cognitively they understand consequences, they value more the immediate reward or positive feeling. (Laurence Steinberg, Temple University). This helps them seek novelty taking risks in situations that otherwise would become a predictable failure. For instance, they can talk and meet with new people, socialize, play the mating game, so necessary for their adult life. They have the courage to feel “so powerful and independent” that they actually can leave their parents and make it on their own, because as we all know: “Nothing is going to happen”. This respond to an adaptive need, since in order to succeed, some risks should be taken, in order to move on, one need to get out of the comfort zone. Imagine, how would teens accomplish this without this natural evolution of their brains?

Preference for Peers: Oxitocin is abundant in the teen years. This hormone among other things, makes social inter-relationships rewarding. Teens need to get out and relate to their friends in order to make connections. For them, the future will be quite different than the one they receive from their parents. They have to be updated and one day they will realize they achieve it, by being “in” with their peers. There is evidence that shows that being rejected by their peers is perceived as a threat to existence by the brain.

It is our job to figure out how to create the proper atmosphere that will foster learning, support emotional and social growth and ease the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is not teens job to make their brains adapt to adult needs, just as it is not a babies job to talk before they are ready to do so, in order for adults to know what they need.

Let´s take the challenge of being more empathic with the adolescents around us. Let´s not forget what an anxious time these years can be. Teenagers face pressure in and outside of school. Knowledge about the adolescent brain should be reflected in the actions we take with them in the different environments that they have to respond: school and home mainly. There are many strategies that can support teens need to productively channel and invest their energy and enthusiasm. These will be addressed at a different time.

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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