What’s Going on Inside Your Teen’s Head?

Your teenager locked himself out -- again. A peek at his neurons helps explain why.

Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on March 09, 2011

Eva-Marie Fredric thought her then-14-year-old son, Dylan, could handle the task of packing for their trip to the mountains. But when the two arrived at the campsite, she found the tent but no tent poles. "We slept outside on an inflated air mattress, freezing our bums off, with the dog huddled between us," Fredric says.

Teens often frustrate their parents with their inability to remember key information and keep track of their stuff. Part of the problem, Doris Trauner, professor of neurosciences and chief of pediatric neurology at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, says, is that their brains are not developed enough to do these things consistently and well.

Teen Brain Development

Trauner says that although the brain continues changing throughout life, it doesn't complete its development until a person reaches his or her mid-to-late 20s. During the initial development phase, nerve cells, or neurons, are busy making connections with each other.

The frontal lobe and parietal cortex are two areas of the brain that don't complete development until the late teens or early 20s, and both are involved in what's known as executive functioning -- the ability to perform tasks such as planning, paying attention, and reasoning. This is part of the reason teen drivers aged 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash.

A child's brain has many more nerve cells and connections than an adult's. Before the frontal lobe and parietal cortex mature, children and teenagers can make use of some of these "extra" neurons to remember, plan, and reason. "Yes, a child or teenager can plan and remember, but not as well as you would like them to," Trauner says. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't have expectations. But if they make mistakes, cut them a little slack."

Since the tent fiasco, Fredric learned to remind herself when Dylan makes a gaffe that the situation could be worse. She says, "To this day, he'll tell you it was his favorite camping night ever."

Helping Your Teen Remember

Encourage your teen to avoid brain glitches without coming across as a nagging parent with practical solutions.

Set limits. You can help shape your teen’s developing brain by setting clear limits and providing precise guidelines for what is and is not acceptable.

Model behavior. Showing your kid how to behave is as important as setting limits. "If you model reasoning or considering the consequences of your actions, your child is going to pick that up and incorporate that into the learning of executive functioning," Trauner says.

Teach cause and effect. Thinking about possible consequences of our actions before we do them is an important executive function. Simply list some possible consequences to an action when you set a rule in place.

Show Sources


Eva-Marie Fredric, Los Angeles.

Doris A. Trauner, MD, chief of pediatric neurology, professor of neurosciences and pediatrics, University of California San Diego School of Medicine; attending physician, Rady Children's Hospital, San Diego.

Sowell, E. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 2002; vol 44: pp 4-16.

Jernigan, T. Brain, 1991; vol 114: pp 2037-2049.

CDC: "Teen Drivers."

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