Insights from “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults”


Our second quarter Parenting Teens and Tweens Discussion Group focused on insights from The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents by Frances E. Jensen, MD with Emily Nutt. The book, in friendly but scientific terms, lays out how the adolescent brain works and responds to the world differently from the brain of a child or an adult. What is emphasized throughout the pages is that the brain development taking place during this time offers some very large advantages but it also leaves an adolescent more vulnerable to lasting damage.

Here is what you need to know:

 The brain develops from the back to front. When a child enters adolescence, the brain is only about 80% developed with the frontal region being the least developed. The frontal lobe is responsible for 1.) attention – the ability to focus on one thing while ignoring distraction,  2.) complex planning, 3.) decision making, 4.) impulse control, 5.) organized thinking, 6.) personality development, 7.) risk management, and 8.) short-term memory. Simply understanding this area is still developing helps explain some of the behaviors that both surprise and confound adolescents and their parents. But what you also need to know is that anything that interferes with development like substance use or stressful life events can cause lasting problems in these areas.

All adolescents are challenged when it comes to handling emotions. In boys, this tends to manifest itself more with impulse control problems. In girls, you tend to see emotional highs and lows often with rapid movement between the two. There are a number of things happening in the teen brain that cause this, for details please check out the book. For now, tuck the knowledge away and share it with your teen, especially if they are struggling with either of these issues. It helps to know that impulse control and emotional regulation, absent negative influence, will improve with age and they are not abnormal for experiencing these issues. And, if the problems are great, there are things they can do to better manage emotions until that time.

Speaking of emotions, stress levels are at an all-time high during the adolescent years. Studies show that unmanaged stress can literally lock down a brain, keeping it from learning, and cause lasting damage. As a parent, it is important to help your adolescent find ways to reduce stress and do all you can to avoid adding to it. If this is something you struggle with, another book that can help is, How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens  Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Adolescents are able to learn and retain information far better than adults. The GOOD news, this heightened ability makes adolescence a great time to explore interests, identify strengths, and invest in emerging talents. What I tell teens is to focus on the things you want to be good at when you are older. It also makes it a great time to intervene when a child has emotional or learning issues. The BAD news, addiction is learned. For this reason, teenagers get addicted to every substance faster than adults, and once addicted have much greater difficulty ridding themselves of the habit. This is why 90% of addictions have roots in the teen years.

Here a few more of the big take-aways:

  • On average, an adolescent needs nine and one quarter hours of sleep a night to consolidate memories, manage stress, and make overall better decisions.
  • IQ can be altered during adolescence with 1/3 going up, 1/3 staying the same, and 1/3 going down.
  • The same amount of alcohol that causes sedation in an adult can cause brain damage in a teen. And, so it goes with all other drugs, the impact is much more deleterious and can last a lifetime.
  • It is very common for adolescents to have difficulties with organization. Ideas to help are offered in the book.
  • Regular marijuana use during the teen years can decrease IQ and is strongly correlated with mental health issues, including an increased risk for developing schizophrenia.

The top recommendations for parents are: 1.) Stay involved in your adolescent’s life and work to keep the relationship strong. 2.) Help your adolescent think ahead and plan for situations that may or may not ever happen. 3.) Try to minimize stress in your teen’s life. 4.) Be a good role model and make sure they recognize some of the responsible practices you put in place. 5.) Get to know the parents of your adolescent’s friends.

If all of this has you wanting to know more, both the Bloomington and Normal Public Libraries have copies of the book available.