Understanding a Teenager's Brain

By Melvin Hayden 

It is a fact that educators do not understand why teenagers occasionally behave in an impulsive, irrational, or dangerous way. Somewhere someone said that alternative education was the end all be all to curing the common teenager…. lol, teens do not think things through or fully consider the consequences of their actions. Adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. As sure as the sun is the sun and the moon is the moon. When we get into biological explanations for this difference. Studies have shown that brains continue to mature and develop throughout childhood and adolescence and well into early adulthood.

Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. Alternative schools work like this, it would make since on developing the parts of the brain that generate the most sensitively toward emotions along with creating the most lasting effects toward behavior early and often. We know this region develops early. By laying the foundation for growth early, we create the plan for the individual need of the specific student. Although, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later.


Teaching specific knowledge of fear begets understanding of control, teaching aggression begets understanding of emotions. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood. Moreover, student adapt better to the meaning of words as it pertains to their culture. Take of example these two words maturing and changing. Change means to some a stigma that the more things change the more they stay the same. Maturing means my development creates opportunity because the more I know the more I evolve. We have to be aware and discontinue the thought process that you are on a different level than the students you service. The fact is we are nowhere near the level their own if we cannot reach them. Other changes in the brain during adolescence include a rapid increase in the connections between the brain cells and making the brain pathways more effective. Nerve cells develop myelin, an insulating layer that helps cells communicate. This myelin sheath allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells, damage creates a short in the system such as trauma. All these changes are essential for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behavior.

Changing Brains Means Adolescents Act Differently from Adults

When we take pictures of the brain in action. The pictures show that children brains work differently than adults when they make decisions or solve problems. Their actions guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex. Research has also shown that exposure to trauma and reinforced acceptance of a negative lifestyle during the teen years can change or delay these developments.

Based on the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to:

•act on impulse

•misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions

•get into accidents of all kinds

•get involved in fights

•engage in dangerous or risky behavior

Adolescents are less likely to:

•think before they act

•pause to consider the consequences of their actions

•change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors

These brain differences do not mean that young people cannot make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also does not mean that they are not be held responsible for their actions. However, an awareness of these differences can help parents, teachers, advocates, and policy makers understand, anticipate, and manage the behavior of adolescents.

A child’s body goes through physical changes that are obvious to all parents. Less obvious are the vital changes taking place in a child’s brain, particularly as she enters her teenage years. The brain, after all, is part of the body and, more importantly, is the organ that controls or tries to control the body’s activities.

Teenagers confront challenges, pressures, stresses, temptations, and asks in brains that are not yet fully developed. It is not just that teenagers have not had the time and experience to acquire a wide sense of the world; quite simply, their brains just have not physically matured yet.

Dealing with pressure and stress is no small challenge for a fully mature brain, much less one that is in transition from childhood to adulthood and in transition from concrete to abstract thinking. That is why it is even more important for parents to understand what their children’s brains are going through as parents monitor and often worry about their children’s social, academic, and emotional challenges.To be continued…

Up next: Check out Growing a Teenager’s Brain in our next issue on Feb. 15.