Understanding the Teenage Brain

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

By Dr. Debra Rezendes, HMT Resident in Marriage and Family Therapy in Northern Virginia 

Raising a teenager can be hard. There is so much social, emotional, and neurobiological change happening in such a short amount of time. Many of us can remember, rather vividly, what it felt like during this awkward and unsettling time. Perhaps, the most challenging task of this stage of development for parents is how to help their teen navigate situations and challenges independently while mitigating risky decision making. But are teen brains really that impulsive and risky? What really is going on?

Teen Developmental Stages

When compared to other developmental stages, teens are three times more likely to have a serious, preventable event that occurs, adding to the belief that impulsivity and risk are inherently a part of being a teen (Boyd & Bee, 2012). However, impulsivity will change across adolescence. Generally, impulsivity will peak in early adolescence (11-14) and continue to drop as the individual enters into young adulthood because the frontal lobe, whose primary job includes judgement and planning, will fine tune, giving teens greater ability to put on the cognitive brakes (Santrock, 2015; Siegel, 2014). While there is some truth to media depictions of impulsivity and rash decision-making in adolescence, the relationship between decision-making, impulsivity and adolescence is much more complex.

Misconception of the Teenage Brain

One major misconception of the teenage brain being under developed is the belief that teens are incapable of evaluating risks until the development of the frontal lobe has finalized. The reality, however, is that teens have the ability to evaluate risk but their evaluation of risk differs from adults. Instead of minimizing risk like adults, adolescents tend to place greater emphasis on the thrilling and rewarding side of a choice, while simultaneously emphasizing peer acceptance (Siegel, 2014).

Rewards and Effects on the Teen Brain

Why the emphasis on reward in adolescence? In adolescence, the baseline of dopamine drops, increasing the amount needed to create a sense of excitement (Siegel, 2014). These changes are important from a developmental perspective because they help to prepare the adolescent to venture away from familiar and comfortable environments and situations to newer and novel experiences that will help them gain the life skills necessary to thrive in adulthood. We want teens to take on more challenges to grow their capacity to handle these challenges when they leave home, and the good news is that their brain is primed to do this.

Peer Influence 

But, teens are really sensitive to peer influence. Teen risk taking has been found to increase in groups. For example, sexual activity is more likely to increase when the adolescent believes (even though it may not be the case) that other peers are having sex (Abma, Martinez & Copen, 2010). When teens are around peers, the socio-emotional network is more influential in their decision-making processes (Siegel, 2014). This is the same area of the brain that is activated when an individual is given a reward. In this light, we can see that the teen brain is highly sensitive to the influence of peers, making potentially exciting and risky activities even
more rewarding. Highly valuing feedback from peers, from a development perspective, is important because it allows for greater growth of social skills, another important skill that the adolescent will need to thrive in adulthood.

From a parenting perspective, this research also emphasizes the importance of parents getting to know their teen’s friends because your teen’s friends will be a huge influence in their decision making. Stay involved. Welcome your teen’s friends over at the house and get to know them. Observe their interactions. Getting to know your teen’s friends will send a huge message that you care and can also open lines of communication should your teen ever be challenged with how to handle difficult social situations.

Taken together, emerging research of the adolescent brain shows a completely different picture of the adolescent. Rather than a risky individual incapable of evaluating risks and understanding consequences, new research paints the picture of an individual who is wired to seek out the world and develop necessary skills needed for adulthood (Horvath, Lewis & Watson, 2012).

What can parents do?

  • I love to remind teens and parents that they have a direct impact on their brain’s development. The brain strengths skills that are consistently used. If you want a brain that is strong in problem-solving and evaluating long-term consequences, help coach teens through the challenges they face by helping them to identify solutions to challenges and evaluating the cost and benefit of these potential solutions.
  • Value your teen’s creative and innovative thinking. Teens, as compared to adults, are much more innovative thinkers because they do fear the consequences of taking risks as much as adults do. We can help teens recognize and cultivate this unique, developmental gift.
  • Help teens choose activities that are thrilling within safe parameters. There are many activities that we can do to increase our dopamine naturally. These activities include exercise, sports, music, getting enough sleep, rollercoasters, travel and competitive activities.
  • At any stage, parent-child relationships flourish when children feel emotionally (and physically) safe and understood. When you were a teen, what made you feel most valued? Reflecting on what you needed and wanted as a teen can help you relate to what your teen may be needing most.


Abma, J., Martinez, G., & Copen, C. (2010). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing. Vital Health Statistics, 23, 1-86.

Horvath, C., Lewis, L., & Watson, B. (2012). The beliefs which motivate young male and female drivers to speed: A comparison of high and low intenders. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 45, 334-341.

Boyd, D. & Bee, H. (2012). Lifespan Development (6th. Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon [ISBN13:978-0-205-03752-0]

Santrock, J. W. (2015). Essentials of life-span development (4 th Ed.). New York: N.Y.: McGraw-Hill.

Siegel, D. J. (2014). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. Hachette UK.


About Dr. Debra Rezendes:

Debra has over ten years of community and clinical work with individuals, children, parents, and families and has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies and Autism Research and Treatment. She received her doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy from Eastern University and has gained specialized, intensive training in emotionally focused therapy (EFT) and Theraplay. She also has skills in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), strengths-based therapies, self-compassion training, attachment-based therapies, play therapy, and solution-focused therapy.

Dr. Debra Rezendes is a Resident in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working towards licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia. She works under the supervision of Marianne S. Coad, MAMFC, LMFT, LPC-S. In the event that clients have any questions or concerns about Debra’s work, her supervisor can be contacted at mariannesynergycounseling@gmail.com, (703) 657-9721, or 10379-B Democracy Lane, Fairfax, VA 22030.

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