By Eve Zuckoff
The teen brain has long been an enigma to parents, but in recent years it's also become a hot topic for brain researchers. One thing they’ve learned is that teens aren't just inexperienced adults.
The teen brain is still developing, and the result is a unique set of both strengths and potential weaknesses for teens and their parents to work with.
“The brain is actually constructing its most important elements during the teen years,” according to Frances Jensen, chair of the neurology department at University of Pennsylvania and author of The Teenage Brain: A neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults.
The last part of the teen brain that gets connected is the frontal lobe, where decision making, judgment, empathy, impulse control, and organizational behavior are managed.
Without full access to the frontal lobe, teens are in a in a more vulnerable position where they might be taking more risks and making less sensible decisions, Jensen says.
Jensen says this is exactly where parents can step in with “frontal lobes assists:”
“[Parents can] help them with decision making, planning, and assessing risks, and [also offer a] heads up about risks they may not see ahead of them.”
On the flip side, their risk-taking can be connected to novelty-seeking that parents and teens can harness to pursue new ideas, opportunities, and experiences. The adolescent brain is highly plastic, meaning the brain takes in change more easily, and that can last well into the mid- to late 20s.
Now, as school lets out and summer sets in, many parents and teens may be preparing to spend more time together relaxing, but, Jensen says, summer break provides great opportunities for teen brain development.
“The highly stressful school year is over. They can actually sleep. They have a little bit more control over their days. It is time for them to look inward and cultivate hobbies and skills that they may not have had time for [during the school year],” Jensen said.
In fact, teens can also use this time to learn not only how to take on new jobs and chores, but how to take sensible risks.
“They need to learn to be accountable. That’s an actual skill that needs to be imprinted on their brains, as well. And if we continue to be helicopter parents or bulldozer parents.... they’re actually going to learn helplessness,” Jensen said.
For older teens, as many parents know, it’s also a time to think about the college process.
Jensen recommends parents open conversations about college with a relaxed, nonjudgmental tone to avoid provoking anxiety.
“The only way you can really do that—I think—successfully is by starting early so you're not trying to get all your college tours done at the end of August before school starts,” she said.
Still, anxiety can be an unavoidable part of the process, and, Jensen says, parents who are worried their teen is really struggling should seek help from a therapist or college counselor.
Ultimately, she says, a parent’s goal should be to get their teens to a place to where they can make relatively informed decisions.
“Your role is to give them like as many sides of the story and as many tools to make that decision.”