Advanced research methods have taught us that the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s. It’s a little earlier for girls and a little later for boys.
How does the brain develop?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Your teen's brain is still developing, but that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to make mistakes or make bad decisions (and remember adults make a lot of really bad decisions too). Experience contributes to brain development. Giving your teen the chance to try new things and figure things out on their own will help.
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. They need practice and experience to learn to do what may feel like an everyday task to an adult.
Help your teen break down the actions necessary to complete each chore. Then help your teen think about organizing actions, setting priorities and making decisions.
What parents can do
- Support your teen by providing guidance, giving reminders and suggestions.
- Avoid labeling decisions or choices as “stupid.” And avoid assuming mistakes and choices you may think are bad are just part of being a teenager. Try to understand decisions from your teen’s perspective. How they make decisions will be different from how you would make the same decision.
- Take advantage of opportunities to teach decision-making processes.
- Help prepare teens for difficult decisions. Talk with teens about potentially challenging situations, such as peer pressure to drink alcohol. Coach them in practicing how to deal with those situations. Give them examples of words they can use when they are with friends.
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 Explained — Clea 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.
Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk-taking, risk preference, and risky decision-making in adolescence and adulthood: an experimental study. Developmental Psychology, 41, 625-635.
McNeely, C., & Blanchard, J. (2010). The teen years explained: a guide to healthy adolescent development. Baltimore: Center for Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Simpson, A. R. (2001). Raising teens: a synthesis of research and a foundation for action. Boston: Center for Health Communication, Harvard School of Public Health.
Steinberg, L. (2008). Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Reviewed in 2023