The Mysterious Teen Brain

Teenagers can drive you up the wall and leave you wondering why they behave the way they do. Neuroscience now has some answers, says Arundhati Swamy. Read on to find out...

By Arundhati Swamy

The Mysterious Teen Brain


The workings of a teenage brain were, till recently, a mystery to the rest of us. But, neuroscience has now come up with some information that makes it a little easier to understand why a teenager acts the way she does. Neuroscience informs us that the teen brain is a work in progress with different parts of the brain becoming increasingly capable of complex functions and activity. Its growth and development go well beyond the teens into early adulthood.

Fluid state of development

The fact that the brain and its primary regions are still in a fluid state of development with dramatic structural changes occurring leaves the teenager vulnerable, and he has difficulty acquiring the skills to deal with stress, hormonal changes, impulsiveness, pleasure seeking and risky behaviour and emotional confusion. How reasonable is it, then, to expect your teen to show mature thinking and emotional control and to exhibit appropriate behaviour as dictated by our socio-cultural norms?

Unequal pace of development

Scientific evidence points to the unequal pace of development in different parts of the brain. The development is faster in the amygdala (seat of emotional awareness) and slower in the prefrontal cortex (seat of impulse control, planning and judgement). It also tells us that prolonged stress causes distinctive structural changes in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

An effective way to help your teens is to view these years as a period of opportunity during which she can learn competence, build confidence and strength of character, make meaningful people connections and learn to be compassionate and caring.

The ‘problem’ and ‘opportunity’ viewpoints

The ‘problem or challenge’ viewpoint sets us on a path of conflict, aggression and frustration, causing stress and strained adult-teen relationships. The ‘opportunity’ viewpoint, on the other hand, sets us on a path of relationships fuelled by encouragement, support and tolerance. This encourages the growth of robust neural networks which transport all sensory inputs into the brain.

These sensory inputs help us make sense of the world around us and therefore a strong network is needed. Prolonged stress weakens the structures of the neural pathways. This threat makes them shift from the ‘thrive’ to the ‘survive’ mode and defensive behaviours surface, shutting down rational thinking. Teaching your teen techniques to calm down while providing them a nurturing and a loving environment, ensuring they get proper sleep and food and encouraging them to have active habits will help them to deal with any stress they face.

Well-adjusted teens

If you want to have a well-adjusted teen, here is a formula to keep in mind:

Nutrition + sleep + exercise + human nurturing + engagement + adult patience, tolerance and understanding = healthy brain development + social and emotional control.


Arundhati Swamy is a Family and SchoolCounsellor, a parenting expert and former President of Chennai Counselor's Foundation.