The developing brains of teenagers


teens-brainsThis weekend, while on call for our behavioral health department, I received a call from a distressed mom of a teenage girl. While this careful mom was reviewing the contents of her daughter’s cell phone (not a bad idea!), she found “selfies” that had been sexted to her boyfriend. The pictures were pretty graphic! Her mom just couldn’t understand why her daughter would do such a dumb thing. “Doesn’t she realize that these photographs could be posted all over the Internet?!” The fact is that teenagers don’t think much before they act. Their brains are still developing, and their pre-frontal lobes, which are the guardians of intelligent behavior, are still maturing.

A recent article in The New York Times (April 27, 2013, “Friends can be dangerous” by Laurence Steinberg) reviewed a study that the author completed 8 years ago. Teens were randomly assigned to play a video driving game either alone or with two same aged friends watching. “The mere presence of peers made teenagers take much more risks and crash more often.” But also interestingly, a comparison group of adults showed no similar peer effect. Their behavior was not influenced by the presence of peers.

This study, at the time was perplexing. Most researchers thought that it was the actual encouragement (e.g. following the leader) of friends that resulted in adolescent risky behavior. Simply having peer observers, without any of their encouragement, resulted in taking risks. Adults were immune to this effect.

Later studies by the author, demonstrated that the “reward center” of the brains of teens were specifically stimulated in this video study. This arousal inclined teens to be influenced by the potential “rewards” of a risky decision rather than to take the more conservative path. Peers had no such impact on the brains of adults.

Another study highlighted this finding. College students were asked to choose between receiving a smaller immediate reward of $250 or a delayed one of $1000 in six months. Again, when observed by peers, the youth were more likely to pick the immediate reward. Alone, they were more likely to act like adults—go for the big bucks later on.

I have no doubt that the “sexting teen” was with her buddies when she sent the picture to her boyfriend. We all remember that we were more likely to do dumb things when we were with our teenage friends than by ourselves. What we didn’t recognize was that it was probably due to our developing brains, rather than our propensity to make “bad choices” when we were with other kids.

The National Institute of Health posted a revealing article on the developing brains of kids. It reminds us that our brains are continuing to grow and mature, even after we have reached physical maturity. It may not be until our early 20’s that we have the ability to delay gratification and make sound decisions.

How does this help Moms and Dads? It reminds us that risky decision making by our adolescents is more likely due to their “hard wiring” than to just making bad choices. Their ability to think about the consequences of their behavior, delay gratification, and employ complex decision-making is still neurologically in process.

What does it mean to me? Kids are like kites. When parents are firmly holding the string, the kite flies in the sky. Sometimes it is necessary to pull in the string and other times it may be the right time to let it out. But let go of the string, and the kite will plummet to the ground and crash. It is the connection between parents and teens that enable them to test their wings.

What do you think?


  1. Anonymous

    So what is excused and what isn’t? This year my daughter turned 17 and it’s been horrid. As much as I try to understand biology of teen mind, I also find it to be an excuse to get away with things. Where do we draw the line? They can drive cars for crying out loud, if they are biologically prone to make foolish decisions than they shouldn’t be driving. I was fully aware at 17 what I was doing, frankly, I didn’t care all the time. Now, at 40 I have NO CLUE what I am doing.

  2. Anonymous

    I think each teen is different too. Some are able to make those connections and decisions at a yonger age, while it takes others well into their 20′s to catch on. There is never going to be a blanket rule for every kid/teen/person.

  3. Dr. Paul

    Just like we don’t expect very young children to have fine motor coordination, we can’t expect that teens will use good judgment! It does mean that we have to establish limits so that they will be safe. Hold on to those kite strings! It does get better when they get older.

  4. Anonymous

    My son is about to turn 12 in 2 weeks…eeek!! I have been noticing more and more his growing independence and sometimes sassiness/attitude. I too have a hard time differentiating between what is considered to be normal behavior for his age and what is just plain rude and bad parenting/my fault?? I stress constantly to him the importance of “being a good kid” and staying away from trouble in school. As a young, single mother….I am doing my very best, but sometimes I wish parenting came with a handbook. Everyone always has an opinion about what to do or not do. I often find myself questioning when to take him to a therapist and what emotions and behaviors are considered to be “normal” for a boy his age.

  5. Anonymous

    My 12 year old son jumped off my house top roof a few months ago!! When he and his 2 friends came running in excited and laughing, blood rushing down his eye, I panicked and yelled “what did you do that for?!” My child said its ok mom, it didnt hurt. Can I do it again?! No!!!! 6 stitches above the eye and an ER visit didnt even phase him. I cant imagine even thinking that would be a smart or fun thing to do!

  6. Dr. Paul

    It can be helpful to bring your youngster to see a counselor simply to obtain an objective opinion if he or she is “normal” or having a problem that needs some attention. It is hard for moms and dads to be objective! We can usually tell after one visit if your child is within the normal limits of adolescence or needs some help.

  7. anonymous

    My 13 year old daughter seems to be interested in boys way beyond what I think is normal. That is all she seems to think about and is texting all day long if she has the opportunity. Her father and I spend quite a bit of time with her doing activities. We were divorced when she was 6 and I am wondering if all this is because she feels like she isn’t getting enough attention. She has met some boys on social media (instagram) and tells people they are her best friend when they have never even met in person. Is this the “in-thing” these days with teenagers?

  8. Maria

    I am the parent of 3 grown kids & am raising my 13 year old grandson now. I see a huge difference in his behavior & development than from my own kids. The big difference in our lifestyle now is that we home school. My 3 adult kids gave us a few headaches through their teen years ( actually one of them gave a a LOT), but I am not seeing that with our grandson. He has the up & down emotional stuff that comes with all the hormones, but he isn’t influenced by other kids day after day. He is his own person & has a great set of values. He doesn’t feel compelled to do what the other kids do or make foolish choices. I think there is something to be said for being around a wide range of ages & people growing up rather than sitting in classrooms all day with the same kids who are the same age.