The Teenage Brain

Is there an adolescent in your life?

Do you ever wonder why you made the choices you did when you were that age?

If your answer is “yes” to either of these questions this book is for you.

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances E. Jensen, M.D. and Amy Ellis Nutt, presents the latest research on brain development along with cautionary tales and insights that kids need to hear.

While book shelves are full of baby books for new parents there hasn’t been anything quite like that for parents at the other end of the parenting spectrum. The information in Teenage Brain fills this need by addressing the issues of the teenager’s internal clock, how addiction happens, the myth of multi-tasking, vulnerability to stress induced illnesses, food disorders, suicide, risk taking, bullying, gaming, social media, mental illness, gender, concussions, criminal activity and the judicial system, and includes the self-absorption, anxiety and uncertainty of the early twenties.

Jensen explains the difference between adult and teenage brains. “If the human brain is very much a puzzle, then the teenage brain is a puzzle awaiting completion.”

To illustrate the point Jensen tells the story of an 18 year old who drank herself into unconsciousness at a party. When her twenty-one year old companions couldn’t rouse her they panicked. Instead of calling 911 or campus security, or driving her to an emergency room, they drove her ten miles to Jensen’s house. Their reasoning, “She’s a freshman. If we brought her to the health center, we could all get in trouble.”

The brain changes as it grows. The part of the brain that makes us civilized and intelligent adults is the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the cortex. These are also the last parts to fully develop. “The frontal lobes are the seat of our ability to generate insight, judgment, abstraction, and planning. They are the source of self-awareness and our ability to assess dangers and risk. A teen brain is only about 80% of the way to maturity. For example, prospective memory is the ability to hold in your mind an intention to perform a certain action at a future time; for instance, ‘Remember to return a phone call when you get home from work.’ This memory function occurs in the frontal lobes and first develops from the ages of six to ten. It grows again to become more efficient in the twenties. Between the ages of ten and fourteen, however, studies reveal no significant improvement. At that age the ability to remember is not keeping up with the rest of a teenager’s growth and development.”

Because the brain wiring is not yet fully myelinated (connected) to the frontal lobes where the functions of judgment and decision making are located teens sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations without knowing what to do next.

Jensen tells the story of her normally intelligent teenage son’s car accident on the way to school. “He decided that he could squeeze a left turn into the school entrance in the path of rapidly moving traffic going in the opposite direction. This might have worked if there had been another mother like me driving in the opposite direction who would have shaken her head and slammed on her brakes. But in Will’s case that morning, it was a twenty-three-year-old guy who was no more in the mood to give the right-of-way than Will had been to wait to cross the road. So— the accident happened.”

The teenage brain is primed to learn and remember because it is creating new connections between brain areas. When her sons fell in love with a needy, clumsy, runt- of- the litter kitten, Jensen demonstrated the brain’s neuronal plasticity with an at home experiment. When they petted the kitten who was often in their laps, the family made sure to massage the front paws paying special attention to the tiny cat finger areas. As the cat grew up she exhibited unusually well-defined paw dexterity. This cat delighted in using her paws, even using them to scoop food into her mouth.

Teenagers don’t really have more hormones than they will have a few years later. But a teenager’s brain is not yet prepared for the surge of these chemicals that occurs puberty. “Sex hormones are particularly active in the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain. That explains in part why adolescents are emotionally volatile and also why they may seek out emotionally charged experiences—This double whammy, a jacked up, stimulus seeking brain not yet fully capable of making mature decisions hits teens pretty hard, and the consequences to them and their families, can sometimes be catastrophic.”

According to the authors the most effective way to reach our kids is to share with them the data presented in the book, and “to stuff their minds with real stories, real consequences even when they complain they have heard it all before.”