Inside the Teenage Brain

Posted on: 11/29/10 1:26 PM | by Jonathan McKee

Ever wonder why teenagers might be better than us in video games, but seemingly inept at simple decision making and reasoning?

If only we could take a peek inside the teenage brain.

Well… they have!

Parade magazine featured an excellent article yesterday about the teenage brain. I’ve written on the teenage brain before— especially the fact that teenagers lack the neural circuitry in the frontal lobe necessary for decision making. Teenage brains are a “work in progress” until they are in their 20’s. (That explains a lot, huh?)

This new Parade article encored that research, and also shared a few other interesting tidbits:

  • The skills you practice as a child and pre-teen become much sharper in the teenage years; and those practiced reluctantly, if at all, will diminish on your brain’s hard-disk drive. “The brain is very efficient, allowing you to become more adept at the life skills you’re going to use — which is why these are the years to set good work habits in place,” notes Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.
  • The frontal lobes, and particularly the prefrontal cortex, are one of the last areas of the brain to develop. Researchers now believe that the prefrontal cortex — responsible for things like organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, and controlling impulses — is not fully developed until the late 20s. (The article I wrote above cited research that said “early” twenties. Interesting that it’s now the “late 20s.)
  • Beginning in puberty and continuing into the early 20s, adolescents need from 8.4 to 9.2 hours of sleep on average a night.
  • Teens and adults used different areas of the brain to process what they were feeling. Teens rely much more on the amygdala, a small almond-shaped region in the medial and temporal lobes that processes memory and emotions, while adults rely more on the frontal cortex, which governs reason and forethought.

Lori and I talked about this article quite a bit when we read it. I was encouraged by a few things:

– Sometimes I second-guess myself when I’m not only teaching, but enforcing good work habits in our home. I wonder, “Am I being too strict?” It’s good to hear that this window of time sets these good work habits in place for the rest of their life. I even asked my son Alec (17) his thoughts on the issue. He said, “Looking back, I’m glad you made me get off my butt and do some of this, because I probably never would have done it myself.”

– Lori and I make our kids go to bed at 9PM. They always complain, “9PM!!! None of our friends have to go to bed at 9PM!” But when their alarm goes off early, they’re always grateful!

– It also seems interesting that research keeps showing “full maturity” to be later and later. Early twenties, now late twenties. I can’t help but wonder if we’re pampering this generation too much, helping them not grow up. I’ve always experienced great results when I “raised the bar” just a bit with my kids, both in ministry and in parenting.


7 Replies to “Inside the Teenage Brain”

  1. 9pm – I am right there with you. When our kids were younger we used to send them to bed early also and when they made a similar comment we would tell them – well, we don’t go by what all your friends do – we do what we think is best for you. Thanks for your article. Keith

  2. You never cease to amaze me with how timely your blogs are! Just yesterday I was reviewing how alcohol effects the frontal lobe with my middle schoolers(I am a drug prevention educator). In my discussion, I talk with the kids about how the frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to develop and often doesn’t develop until the late teens, early 20’s. Thanks for the updated info…I will look more into this.

    Goes to show how important helping our children learn to problem solve and think all the way through things before making decisions is! I think you are spot on about pampering our children…this generation of kids seems to have had lots and lots handed to them…the work ethic of many teens is very discouraging at times.

    In one way our tough economic times may help reverse this late “maturing” trend. Unfortunately, it always seems “we” have a hard time changing until we “have” to.

  3. Wow, I just read the Parade article…thanks so much for the link to this info! It has helped me put some pieces of the drug addiction puzzle together in a way I can explain to my students!

    I really try to help my students understand the addiction process…specifically with tobacco because this is usually the gateway drug for kids…the nicotine in tobacco produces dopamine in your brain which tricks your body into stopping production of its own dopamine…its a viscious cyle…when your dopamine levels drop after the nicotine wears off, you begin to feel “on edge”, depressed, etc…so you light up another cig and so on and so on.

    I read a recent study that showed that teens are at a much higher risk of developing an addiction after only 1 or 2 cigarettes. The Parade article stated that dopamine levels in teens are not at optimal levels…Eureka…that is most likely what makes them more susceptible to addiction after only 1 or 2 cigs.

    Very helpful info! Thanks!

  4. again, thank you for sharing this article from the Parade. I too read the article on sunday morning and was encouraged and even had some good talking time with a 17 year old. She was well aware of the immature frontal lobe and agreed with most of the biological makeup of a teenager’s brain. I wonder how many other teenagers know this? Do they teach it in the schools? I think this information would be so helpful for both teens and parents during those precious years. God made the brain so fascinating and this article was really helpful for me as a youth leader to understand teenagers a little more.

  5. What a cool article! I love the studies of the brain, and how much they tell us about how to minister to students! I really appreciate the fact that although I tend to see things very logically, the students are looking at in accordance with how they feel. That really helps with my communicating. I need to start meeting them where they’re at. Thanks again, Jon. This is such good stuff.

  6. I gotta say, reading the articles and blog entries of late has made me less and less look forward to the teenage years for my kids but more and more compassionate for those teens I work with. Are we all sure that a secure, tight, little bubble isn’t the right place for our teens until they get into their 20’s??;)

  7. I don’t think it’s the Christian parents who are ‘pampering’ this generation. It’s the parents who are either unsaved or are living like hypocrites, make me wanna pull my hair out. The ones who used to love to hold it over my head that I wasn’t a parent – until we adopted – and now sometimes it’s “Well you’ve never raised one from birth, you don’t know what it’s like”! It kills me to see moms and dads who will allow their over-18 children to live at home rent free with no bills, no responsibilities but loads of money and friends and all the freedom they want without having to earn it. No rules, no standards and they just shrug their shoulders and say “Oh well, I can’t MAKE them change”. It kills me. Seriously. Make some rules. If someone’s smoking weed or sleeping around, their stuff goes in their car and out the door they go. It’s what my mom & dad would have done. Light it up, out you go. Sleep around, we don’t want your disease on our toilet seat so out you go. Our son knows that rule and he’s 24. I think the concept of sleeping under a bridge has kept him straight. Seriously.

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