Your teen's developing brain

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

Your child's brain is not fully mature until their mid-20s. This is a little earlier for girls and a little later for boys. Researchers used to think that teens' brains were mature. But they thought that teens' behavior differed from adults because they didn't have the same experiences to draw on.

Now with technologies that measure and map brain activity, researchers can more clearly see how the brain develops.

How the brain develops

  • The brain matures from back to front. Starting in infancy, the brain develops from the brain stem at the back of the neck to the prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain. As noted, brain maturity is reached in the early to mid-20s.

  • The brain is developing at the same time that other physical, emotional, and cognitive or mental changes are occurring in your teen. Billions of new connections between brain cells are being formed. And they, in turn, contribute to the other changes your teen is experiencing.

  • The brain continuously builds connections based on frequent experiences. But it prunes (eliminates) connections related to infrequent experiences. In other words, you "use it or lose it" when it comes to connections made in the brain.

 

For tips on talking with teens about challenging situations, see the fact sheets under Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

Understanding the facts of brain development can help you decide how to best support your teen's learning and development. For example, if you give your teen a list of chores, you may be surprised when he doesn't do what you consider the most urgent chore first. You could just say, "X is the most important job. Do that one first."

But you can make this a teaching moment and help your teen break down the actions necessary to complete each chore. Then you can help your teen think about organizing actions, setting priorities, and making decisions.

What’s most important is that you realize that your teen's brain is still developing.  You also need to realize that experiences contribute to that development. Finally, you need to understand your parental role in shaping those experiences — and thus the development of your child's brain.

What parents can do

Here's what you can do to help your teen's brain develop in healthy ways:

Support your teen by providing guidance, giving reminders and suggestions.

Avoid labeling decisions or choices as "stupid." Try to understand decisions from your teen’s perspective. Take advantage of opportunities to teach decision-making processes.

Talk with teens about potentially challenging situations, such as peer pressure to drink alcohol. Coach them in practicing how to deal with those situations.

For tips on talking with teens about challenging situations, see the fact sheets under Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

You may be interested in...

Why Do They Act That Way? David Walsh, PhD — This revised and updated book helps explain why teens act the way they do and what parents and teachers can do about it.

The Teen Years ExplainedClea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This book and website can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator in family relations

Revised by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Department of Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2018

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