Teen Brains Demystified

When a child reaches adolescence, parents often find themselves asking, “What were you thinking?” Well, there’s a reason.

Scientists used to believe that human brain development neared completion by age 10, but that’s not the case. Studies have shown there are differences. For example, the frontal lobes — crucial to mature decision-making — aren’t fully connected in most teens.

Compared to adults, teen brains also don’t have as much myelin, a fatty coating that works somewhat like electrical wire insulation. Myelin is required for nerve signals to flow freely. Lacking it can lead to inefficient communication between parts of the brain.

That’s why seemingly normal teenagers, even excellent students, occasionally make questionable decisions. In fact, studies show that neural insulation isn’t fully developed until individuals reach their mid-20s.

“This research has been really helpful because it provides a concrete example that helps parents understand what their teenagers are going through,” said Caroline Jones, a CHI Health licensed mental health practitioner.

Tips for dealing with teen brain:

  • Try family therapy when teens and parents aren’t on the same page.
  • Remind teens that down times won’t last forever, and encourage them to seek help if necessary.
  • Watch for substance abuse. Teens who start using alcohol before age 15 are four times more likely to become addicted.

Caroline Jones, LIMHP, LADC

Mental Health Therapy,
Student Health