How Your Teen Thinks

Illustration of a male teen surrounded by diagrams of brains
FOTF/Brian Mellema

As the mother of 15- and 16-year-old daughters, I’m often puzzled by what my teens are thinking. In fact, several years ago my sullen and surly girls so perplexed me that I decided to study neuroscientific and psychological research on adolescence.

I discovered that adolescent brains are full of dramatic change, emotional upheaval and powerful neurochemical surges—not just hormonal, but whole-body altering adjustments!

Knowing what’s happening inside teens’ brains can help equip us to make better parenting decisions.

A massive construction zone

Before your children show physical signs of puberty, their brains shift from the explosive neurological growth of childhood to a process of change that includes "synaptic pruning and myelination." Their brains are being remodeled—transitioning from the openness of early childhood to the specialization and integration of adulthood. While this is essential, neurological remodeling is messy, complex, taxing and—at times—annoying.

What you can do

Have shorter, more frequent conversations. The under-construction adolescent brain responds best to brief interactions. This is especially true when it comes to talking about “big issues” like technology, substance abuse, sex and relationships, treating family members with respect and even the development of their faith. Teens respond better to an ongoing dialogue than they do to a “one and done.” Use fewer words, carefully chosen, for greater influence.

“Emotional brain” versus “executive brain”

The brain’s emotional center, the limbic system, comes online early—and with ferocity—during the adolescent years. A teen’s executive functioning—the ability to plan, make wise decisions, control impulses and anticipate consequences—doesn’t mature fully until he is 23 to 25. You may see flashes of brilliant executive functioning, moments when you think, Finally, he’s got it, but those moments could be followed by a foolish choice like spraying his biology teacher with a fire extinguisher on the last day of school.

Think of it this way: Your teen is driving a neurological car with a hot accelerator (emotions) and spotty brakes (executive functioning).

What you can do

Because your teen’s emotional brain is large and in charge, you can model and teach the “name it to tame it” principle. Adolescents are moving from concrete reasoning to abstract thinking and expression, which is like inexperienced artists transitioning from painting with only black and white to having the entire color spectrum at their fingertips. Teens don’t know how to use all the new hues on their emotional pallets, so their initial attempts at self-expression may turn out garish.

An unnamed emotion cannot be tamed, so you can help your teen understand what he is feeling and help him intentionally exert self-control. You do this by giving him words for his emotions (since he often defaults to calling everything “stupid” or “boring” or saying he “doesn’t know” what he's feeling). Teens need to know the difference between angry and hurt, overwhelmed and apathetic, unhappy and confused. When adolescents know what they’re experiencing, you can help them work through that feeling and toward godly self-control.

A flood of input

Teens are constantly observing and analyzing. Their adolescent minds are working overtime, sifting through massive amounts of input from every area of life. Since the adolescent brain learns best by example and experience, how you act and think during this season is incredibly important. In other words, God has given you an adult brain; your teens need you to use it to exercise greater patience and wisdom than they do.

What you can do

Ask questions instead of making statements. When you ask a question, you engage your teen's executive brain. Asking questions also places responsibility in your teen's hands; when she has to determine a response, your teen participates in solving the problem or evaluating the circumstance.

Refrain from asking yes or no questions. If your teen routinely replies with a standard “I dunno,” ask questions that include two or more options. For example, you may ask, “When you forgot to load the dishwasher, were you on your phone, were you thinking about your video game or was your mind somewhere else?” If she chooses option three, you can continue, “OK. Your brain was somewhere else. Can you please describe that to me so I can help you strategize for the future?”

Since a teen's brain is overloaded with neurological remodeling, you can ultimately parent your child more effectively by being patient, not getting frustrated, modeling good behavior and offering compassion.

Jerusha Clark is the author of Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding your teen’s brain can make you a better parent.

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