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Unlocking Secrets of the Teenage Brain

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by Jamie Roach


Does it ever feel like your adolescent isn’t thinking, doesn’t know how to act around your friends, is always arguing or takes too many risks? Do you ever feel like they are pushing you away or wonder if they really do hate you? Why is it when teenage youth are not with friends that they are absorbed in their phones?  

As parents, we are often left feeling confused and at a loss when it comes to the impulsive, irrational and dangerous ways our teenagers behave. We can be left wondering “who replaced my precious, innocent little child with this irrational, gangly monster?”  Of course, I’m kidding… kind of. 

Did you know there is a really good explanation for why our teenagers don’t always “think it through”? And it is not because they are “bad” kids or because we are miserable failures as parents. It is actually science. Brain science now shows that our brains continue to develop and mature through adolescence and well into early adulthood. In other words, when it feels like our kids just aren’t “thinking” it may be because they aren’t… because they can’t, yet.

Their brains are still developing and maturing. The part of the brain responsible for impulsive, emotional and aggressive behavior (amygdala) develops earlier in childhood. By the time they are around 12, they have the emotional, moody, impulsive thing down. However, the part of the brain (frontal cortex) that enables us to “think before we act” develops much later and probably won’t reach full maturity until about age 24.   

We just don’t think the same as adolescents as we do in adulthood. Young people are doing the very best they can with what they have to work with. When we are paying attention to our kids and their development, we become tremendous gifts to them while their brains finish baking.

Understanding more about how the brain develops can enable us to have more grace with our children and ourselves. 

When we understand what our kids are going through, we can empathize and provide them with a safe place to explore and develop rather than a critical, judgemental one, which tends to shame them and inhibits their growth. When we better understand our children and the unique challenges they are facing on a daily basis, we can respond with compassion that leads to greater connection. Rather than feeling like the enemy, we can be a welcomed friend who can offer a steady hand on uneven ground. 

The adolescent years are hard and stressful. Perhaps you can remember what it was like to be a teenager. (Unless you have suppressed the memories from gym class with all the others.) Perhaps you can put yourself in your teenager’s body and feel the pressure, the stress and the fear they face every day. I don’t mean to be dark or pessimistic, but I understand that adolescence is a time of extreme transition, almost constant conflict, and it can leave a young person feeling very insecure, inadequate and alone.  

As we already identified, the brain and body are changing. However, the teenage years are filled with other uncertainties that breed anxiety. They are moving away from the relative safety and comfort of childhood into adulthood. However, before they arrive they are stuck in a liminal, in-between space. Teenagers are leaving what is familiar for what is unfamiliar. They are charting a new course that sometimes leaves them feeling excited and other times very anxious.  They are no longer children but neither are they adults. Adolescence is a confusing, scary and lonely time that can leave your teen feeling frustrated, anxious and alone.  

It is precisely in these in-between years that adolescents need faithful guides who have gone before and can point out pitfalls or dead ends as well as hidden paths and opportunities.The parenting skills  that worked when our children were younger are becoming obsolete. We need to pick up some different tools for this next leg of the journey.  

When our children reach middle school we must renegotiate what it looks like to be present in their lives. Try and hold on too tightly and you may strangle them. Loosen  your grip too much and they may slip through your fingers and crash onto the floor below. Being a parent of an adolescent is every bit as confusing as being an adolescent. Parenting isn’t easy and it is not for the fainthearted. But do not be discouraged;

God has placed within you everything you need to be exactly what your child needs at this moment. 


Youthfront is here to help you faithfully parent your children through all stages of development.  At our upcoming workshop entitled “Secrets of the Teenage Brain,” we’ll dig deeper into how teenagers think and process. Join us Tuesday, Nov. 12, for an evening of learning and conversation facilitated by family licensed counselor Aaron Mitchum, and Youthfront’s Jamie Roach in this special session for parents and grandparents.  

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