Teens just don’t understand, literally!



How many parents have heard this once (or fifty times) from their teenager?  Does then the feeling of guilt set in that you may be too clingy or that you are the only parent who is not letting your teen do something?  Well parents, I have good news for you: You can stop feeling guilty about saying “no” to your teenager or worrying that you are overprotecting them.

Although the brain may be at 95% of its adult size by age six, there are still many changes happening into our early twenties. (Geidd)  Specifically, the frontal lobe of our brain is not fully developed in teenagers.  It continues to develop and becomes fully mature around the age of 20-25.  This is important for parents to know because the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for such functions as planning, organizing, decision making, controlling impulses, weighing outcomes and forming judgments. (Edmund, Knox)


During the teen years, a process called “synaptic pruning” occurs in the brain.  In this process, synapses that are frequently used are strengthened and those that are infrequently used are eliminated.  The frontal lobes are last to fully develop because brain maturation occurs back to front.  It is for this reason that teens may have difficulty with problem solving skills and learning from their mistakes.  They may also display impulsive, inappropriate behavior and labile emotions. (Ogden)


Don’t get me wrong, this lack of frontal lobe maturation is not an excuse for their behavior.  However, parents need to keep this in the back of their mind and realize it may take more effort to modify their teen’s behavior.  Parents should also realize that some risk taking behavior may be necessary for teens to learn about life and become independent; otherwise our children would never leave home. By the way…here’s some more bad news: Teenagers who drink and use drugs risk damaging their frontal lobe to the point where it never fully matures. Oh great – then they may never leave the nest!  Alcohol and drug consumption by a teen whose frontal lobe has not fully matured further decrease inhibitions and increase the likelihood of poor decision making and impaired judgment. (Ogden)

A study was done by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd et al using functional MRI to compare brain activity of teens and adults.  They found while adults have greater activity in their frontal lobes, teens had greater activity in their amygdala.  The frontal lobe is the decision making cause and effect area, where the amygdala is the instinct “fight or flight” area.  Interestingly, decreased frontal lobe development results in poor decision making. Furthermore, an overactive amygdala is associated with increased levels of emotional arousal and reactionary decision making. (Talukder)  These results suggest teens are likely to be incapable of making rational decisions when faced with an emotional issue.  For example: when asked to partake in doing drugs with friends, a teen’s ability to make the right choice is affected by the emotional feelings of friendship.

According to another study done at the McLean Hospital in Boston, teens may be unable to process visual, emotional and cognitive information. This study examined the brain of teens while they were looking at various emotions on peoples’ faces.  During the trials the teen brains’ emotional centers light up, however their thinking regions stay dark.  These results may explain why teens seem un-phased by a parent’s look of disappointment or annoyance with them. (Begley)

Our children seem to develop so fast.  One day they are your sweet little child and the next they are taller than you, their voice and bodies have changed and they think they know everything.  Fear not fellow parents – they do NOT know more than you.  You ARE making the right decisions to help guide them with life’s challenges.  Stay strong and don’t let them break you. After all, your frontal lobe is fully functioning (…hopefully).


Begley, S. (February 27, 2000). Getting inside a teen brain. In Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2000/02/27/getting-inside-a-teen-brain.html.

Brownlee, S. (August 1, 1999). Inside the teen brain: Behavior can be baffling when young minds are taking shape. In US News and World Report. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/990809/archive_001644_print.htm.

Edmunds, M. (n.d.). Are teenage brains really different from adult brains? In How stuff works; A Discovery Company. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/teenage-brain.htm.

Geidd, J MD. (n.d.). Inside the teenage brain. In Frontline, PBS.org. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/giedd.html.

Knox, R. (March 1, 2010). The teen brain: It’s just not grown up yet. In NPR. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124119468

Ogden, J, Ph.D. (December 18, 2011). Brilliant, brazen, teenage brains: Teen brains, crazy behavior and independence. In Psychology Today. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201112/brilliant-brazen-teenage-brains.

Talukder, G. (March, 20, 2013). Decision-making is still a work in progress for teenagers. In Brain Connection. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://brainconnection.positscience.com/decision-making-is-still-a-work-in-progress-for-teenagers/

14 thoughts on “Teens just don’t understand, literally!

  1. Hollattude says:

    I will forever remember this! I can already see myself when my child asks me in a few years why I say no to something I will yell back at her “because your frontal lobe isn’t fully developed that’s why!” lol!! On a more serious note, I wonder how so many of do eventually mature and make better decisions since almost everyone has gotten drunk or high as a teenager. I suppose some teens do it more excessively than others which could account for those adults who still live at home!

  2. knsisson says:

    I loved this blog entry. I really like how you made it into a helpful guide for parents. It rally does make sense after reading this why teenagers are so terrible. Not all of us certainly but most. I thought the emotion part was interesting and I had never heard that before. I found it interesting because when I still in high school I was a very well behaved teen and didn’t do drugs or party. I was actually kind of boring. I read a lot and made sure my grades stayed up and one reason for being like this (among other reasons) was that I hated when I disappoint my parents. Its like the worst feeling. Great topic!

  3. jerista1 says:

    Great entry! But I can’t help but feel so awful for treating my parents the way I had in high school! I should read this blog to them as an official apology note. I found it very interesting when you mentioned that when teenagers drink and use drugs, their frontal lobes never develop. That is scary because I once heard that when you started using drugs, for instance at the age of 16, you emotionally stay that age until you stop using drugs. Maybe there are some neuroplasticity mechanisms that can be used to help the frontal lobe continue maturing after teens come out of their risk-taking behavior days…

  4. John says:

    I really enjoyed your article. I do believe that teen brains are directed more by the amygdala than anything else. I have seen evidence of when I worked at Lehigh County Juvenile Detention Center. Most of the teens were in there for violent crimes or drugs and alcohol. Also the majority of them had impulse control issues while they were at the detention center.

  5. Lauren says:

    I can not tell you how many times I told my parents that they needed to leave me alone, that I knew what I was doing, that I was a responsible young adult. Looking back, man was I wrong. I am so glad I had my parents there telling me that some of the decisions I was making was not a good idea.
    When I started taking criminal justice classes it actually hit me that I should listen to my parents more. We would talk children that murder there parents and if they should be tried as an adult, and when your brain is still that young you don’t know the difference between right and wrong.
    It also made me find out that it is not until your early 20’s that your brain is fully developed. So up until then you are still developing and are not fully equipped to make good decisions.
    Listening to my parents helped me get where I am today, and honestly kept me out of jail. Without them, I don’t want to think of where I would be today.

  6. ndthomas says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog! I remember thinking that I knew exactly what I was doing and that my parents were just being too overprotective. Little did I know then that my frontal lobe was not fully developed! I did not realize until taking psychology courses in college that it does not finish developing until the early 20s. I am glad that I did not do make horrible decisions that would have permanently damaged this area of my brain. I can almost guarantee that I will be giving my future children this information on their brains when they are teenagers! This is especially important information for when they are new drivers. Since their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed they need to take extra precautions to not do anything stupid while driving that is going to cause harm to themselves or others.

  7. ketown says:

    This is such a good blog post and probably should be read by most parents. And personally it is so great to know that it is not my fault that I cannot make a decision! I think it is interesting that we are expected to start college when we are around eighteen. We are supposed to decide what we are going to do with the rest of our lives even though our brains are not developed. That would probably explain why I have switched my major a few times. Sometimes I do not think most people have a brain that is developed even after their mid-twenties. I always think of the guys that do the Jackass movies. They are in their thirties and still doing extremely stupid things.

  8. vacuadra says:

    Excellent topic! Although I do not have children (thank goodness!), I can remember when I was a teenager, and I thought I was in total control and knew everything. Looking back, I could never understand what possessed me to think and act they way I did! Now, I know. I’m sure many adults can look back at their childhood and question what they were thinking in some of their actions. You also mention that alcohol and drugs impact the development of the frontal lobe in teenagers. There is such a debate of why the drinking age is 21 and not 18 since 18 is the age of legal consent for so many other things (marriage, joining the military, etc). I wonder what the effect would be on the nation, in whole, if the drinking age was to be lowered? Too bad that teenagers won’t fully understand how alcohol and other drugs effect the development of their brain, specifically the frontal lobe.

  9. bonoazucar says:

    I like your post, it is very instructive. Although I do not have children, I have a lot of nephews. I have seen many times the game of power that some teenagers play with their relatives. They try to make feel guilty their parents when they do not please their demands. Being a teenager is a wonderful experience; I remember that time which was filled with passion and risk. I am grateful that my parents were the brakes on my will, which is very important for any teenager’s development.

  10. jaysa4 says:

    I did a paper once on this topic I foget for what class it was it was maybe four years ago but yeah your right on it is no excuse for their bad behavior but knowing it helps us understand and have a different view.I mean from early adolescence through their mid-20s, a teen’s brain develops somewhat unevenly, from back to front. This may help explain their endearingly quirky behavior but also makes them prone to risk-taking.The development of the adolescent brain and behavior are closely linked. In a wink, hormones can shift your teen’s emotions into overdrive, leading to unpredictable and sometimes risky actions. Unfortunately, developing brains may be more prone to damage. This means that experimentation with drugs and alcohol can have lasting, harmful effects on your teen’s health. This is why teens need to be educated about this whether they get it or not.

  11. fedietz says:

    This post explains so much of teenage behavior! As a teenager I was not very difficult, but my biggest problem, and the thing that I was always in trouble for was cleaning my room (or lack there of). My room was so bad that you could not walk in it without stepping on clothes, and my older brother’s was the same way, until he went to college. When we went to visit him his room smelled like Febreeze, his bed was made, and everything was put in a specific place. I was shocked to see that he had made such a drastic change. Then when I went to college I was the same way. I always thought that this was because I lived in my room and I did not want it to be messy, but after reading your blog I think it might be due to my developing frontal lobes.

  12. mjfreeby says:

    Ethan Hawke blames his undeveloped frontal lobes for the poor judgment he used when deciding to marry Uma Thurman. This interview was published in the September 2013 issue of Elle Magazine and republished in the New York Daily News. He was not so much blaming as reflecting on the reasons and causes that effected the decisions he made in is twenties.

    I do not know when the development of the frontal lobe is completed. Even if we did the time frame would be based on population averages allowing for a standard deviation in either age direction not to mentioned delayed or retarded development caused by substance abuse/experimentation. However, based on the information contained in this blog, Ethan may have a point. The decision making faculty may have been underdeveloped at the time he as well as many of us made important decisions. Could this be a factor in the prevalence of divorces generally?



  13. ktzielin says:

    This blog was great, haha! I was watching a Zefrank1 video on Youtube a while ago about teens sort of seeming like a different species. A girl wrote in to Zefrank1 about why parents are not understanding or respectful of their wishes and he sort of lays down the line, explaining how the frontal lobe has some work to do yet and parents seem ‘unfair’ for a reason. His video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KQb3Mx2WMw
    I will never not find this information amusing since we all grow up with those friends who go out and make stupid choices, yell at their parents, etc. I need to show this blog entry to my mother and tell her “You’re welcome” because I was a good kid! Instead I went to friends’ houses to plays games, then they’d pull out a ‘something-that-shall-not-be-named’, and I stare at them horrified. A lot of them would scream at their parents and tell me how stupid they were, but when I met their family, they were always so nice and just wanted to do what was best for their teens. I don’t know why we fail to teach kids earlier about this stuff. We talk about not doing drugs or not giving in to peer-pressure, but it makes them laugh and they want to do it more. If we approach it scientifically, and it’s about them, would they listen?

  14. kkonape says:

    Interesting, so what do you think of parents who do drugs/ do drugs with their kids? And how does having the amygdala being more active mean tat they are less able to make better decisions? How do they know that this doesn’t just mean they are quicker or more precise, since if you look at more of an evolutionary process youngest children were easier to catch from predators so they needed this to be sharper? Do you think this is the only reason people have done drugs? I like your blog, but I would want to see more on the information on things like this to make it more viable as to connect it to being unable to make decisions. If you look at Woodstock, a lot of different ages did drugs. So what would this mean towards your argument?

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