What Where You Thinking?!?! Understanding the Prefrontal Cortex of the Teenage Brain

Have you ever asked your teen, “What were you thinking” and gotten the answer, “I wasn’t”  or “I don’t know.” During adolescence, the teenage brain is undergoing subtle, but dynamic changes, all in the midst of major physiological, psychological, and social transitions. Overall, theses changes lead to more sophisticated thinking skills and increases in their ability to process emotions.

The tricky part is that this development takes place during a time that is known for increased risk-taking behavior.  Because teens will try on new things to learn about themselves, it is important to help them understand how much their brain is changing and how they can take care of it during the teen years. This will help them to avoid things that can harm the brain, like substance use. It can also help them realize that they are not supposed to be able to think like an adult.  Part of a parent’s job is to create a space where their teen feels comfortable enough to ask for help .

We used to believe that the majority of development took place in the first five years of life.  Now we know that while the size of the brain does not change much after grade school, the brain matures considerably throughout adolescence and into their 20’s.   Understanding these changes for yourself can help you talk to your teen about what is going on, how the changes impact their thinking and decision-making, and how risks-taking behavior can have a negative impact on brain development.

Sagittal human brain with cortical regions del...

Image via Wikipedia

The prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex is thought to be the last area of the brain to be fully developed. This section of the brain controls much of a person’s logical thinking and decision-making.  Think of this as the CEO of the brain. It is in charge of a number of important skills like: controlling impulses, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, initiating appropriate behavior, changing behavior when situations change, organizing things, forming strategies and planning behavior, setting priorities, making decisions, showing empathy, having insight, and taking constructive feedback.

Kind of makes sense why teens can be so unpredictable, argumentative, and sensitive. It helps to explain behaviors that appear completely out of character.  I’ve heard several parents joke, “Where did my child go?” “When is he coming back?”, or “I think he’s been possessed by aliens!”  Still, all of this doesn’t mean that teens can’t make good decisions. It simply explains why teens can be smart enough to reason with their teachers and parents, formulate arguments for personal or political points of view, and build web sites, while still making poor decisions to skip school, cheat on a test, or drink and drive.

With all of these stills still developing, teens are susceptible to being impulsive, lacking plans, and making decisions without thinking through the possible consequences.  As a parent, you can:

  • Help them build these skills. Recognize that you play an important role in having teaching  your teen to stretch their thinking. Now, as much or more than any other time, they need constant conversations about life and how to handle different thoughts, feelings, and situations.
  • Help them “clean things up”, or make amends with those they have impacted when they make a mistake. Use mistakes as opportunity to talk about other ways to handle the situation.
  • Remember that you respond more intellectually to situations. Teens respond “from the gut” and need continued guidance while their brains are still developing.
  • Help them practice! Take an active role in thinking through different scenarios. Help them connect their gut feelings to the possible outcomes if they acted on them.  Teens may still have a more narrow view then of situations than you do. They need you to put small events into the larger context. You may also find it helpful to relate situations to past experiences (theirs, your own, a even a third party like a neighbor or movie character) so that it is more concrete.
  • Don’t assume your teen does things on purpose. Step back and consider that at the time, they might not have been able to respond any differently.
  • Do your best not to overreact to situations. Your teen needs to feel comfortable enough to talk to you about tough situations so that you get the opportunity to coach him/her. It is through this process that teens build pathways in the brain that will help them deal with similar situations in the future.  The brain will literally recognize, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” and will be able to pull from past experience.


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