Parenting teens: The teenage brain

Parenting teens: The teenage brain

New research has found that teenagers are so different because their brains are undergoing a BIG change, which starts around puberty and continues through to their mid-20s.

Key points to remember

  • teenagers' brains are not ready or able to work in the same way as adults' brains
  • new research has found that teenagers are so different because their brains are undergoing a BIG change, which starts around puberty and continues through to their mid-20s
  • this period of growth also means teenagers' brains are more sensitive to drug use than those of adults
  • it is important for parents to delay and limit alcohol consumption and use by teenagers for as long as possible, and the same applies to tobacco and marijuana use

Teenagers' brains are not ready or able to work in the same way as ours

Since their brain isn't fully developed, it can be a big challenge for teenagers between coming up with an idea and being able to decide if it's actually a good one.

A group of teenage boys sitting on a log

We used to blame hormones for teenagers' often strange and impulsive behaviour. New research has found that they are so different because their brains are undergoing a BIG change, which starts around puberty and continues through to their mid-20s.

For teenagers, this means that they just don't think the same way as adults. Their brain is not ready or able to work in the same way as ours. The greatest changes are to the parts of the brain that handle impulse control, judgement, decision making, planning, organisation and emotions.

More importantly – the kinds of stimulation you provide for your teen can actually shape the structure of their brains. Current studies show that teenagers' brains develop very quickly in relation to the things that they experience. This is why they learn games like those for PlayStation more easily than older adults. Their brain grows and learns – constantly 'rewiring itself'.

Since their brain isn't fully developed, it can be a big challenge for teenagers between coming up with an idea and being able to decide if it's actually a good one.

Teenagers' brains are more sensitive to drug use

This period of growth also means teenagers' brains are more sensitive to drug use – much more so than those of adults. Excessive alcohol – such as binge drinking (more than 5 standard drinks drunk quickly over a short period) can cause actual physical damage to their brain.

Alcohol also interferes with their learning, causing both short and long-term memory problems and can also lead to higher stress levels and risk of depression and suicide.

Starting to drink at an early age is also associated with alcohol dependency and related problems during adult life. For these reasons, it is important for parents to delay and limit alcohol consumption and use by teenagers for as long as possible and the same applies to tobacco and marijuana use.

One study showed that for young people who started drinking by the age of 14, almost half (1 out of every 2) went on to develop alcohol dependency problems, compared with only 1 in 10 who didn't drink alcohol until they were 21.1

  1. Ralph W. Hingson, ScD, MPH; Timothy Heeren, PhD; Michael R. Winter, MPH. Age at Drinking Onset and Alcohol Dependence. Age at Onset, Duration, and Severity. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006;160:739-746

Image of the cover of "Whanau pack" booklet

The Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation are very grateful to Northland District Health Board (NDHB) for permission to reproduce this content from the Whānau pack: Tools for families and parents with teenagers (PDF, 4.16MB)

Copyright
NDHB own the copyright in this material and it must not be copied or reproduced except as expressly permitted by NDHB. 

This page last reviewed 01 March 2018.
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