Want to Get Through to Teens – Talk to Their Brain

Want to Get Through to Teens – Talk to Their Brain

Want to Get Through to Teens – Talk to Their Brain – really! In my decade of research and writing on brain development and the brain disease of addiction, understanding the whole story about puberty and the brain’s evolution [see Image 2 below] gave me the pieces that finally completed the puzzle on how/why teens do the things they do and how/why their peers are so influential and why all of this is so instrumental in the development of substance abuse problems.

If you are a parent, you know what I’m talking about. When your child is around 10 – 11, they still want to be around you, turn to you for comfort and guidance, talk to you about their day and may even still give you big hugs and take your hand. But then puberty arrives, and everyone’s world feels as if it turns upside down. And that’s because it does.

Back in the day – way back in the day, man’s average lifespan was about 25 years. [Sometimes it helps to think of man as but one of the species that make up our world.] The portions of the brain that were most used were the cerebellum – the “motor control” portion of the brain where the neural networks that control breathing, heartbeat, movement are found, and the Limbic System – the “reactionary” portion of the brain where the neural networks that control pleasure/reward, fight-or-flight, pain and emotion are found. It wasn’t until much, much later in man’s existence that the cerebral cortex (includes the prefrontal cortex) – the “thinking” part of the brain, where the neural networks that control reasoning, judgment, motivation, perception, memory and learning are found, evolved into what it is, today. [See Image 1 below.]

So what does all this have to do with puberty and talking to the teen brain in order to reach a teen?

Further, what does this have to do with the development of substance abuse problems?

There are three key reasons for puberty, which on average begins around age 12 [see Image 3 below]:

1. to trigger the hormonal changes to develop the adult-like body and the hormonal changes to make the species want to have sex, which then relied on the pleasure/reward pathways in the Limbic System that made the species enjoy sex enough to have it again and thereby reproduce (and continue the species).

2. to take risks (think of the baby bird who one days hops out the nest because something in its species triggers the timing of when it must learn to fly in order to stay safe, find food, reproduce and thereby continue the species)

3. to turn to their peers.

And these three changes were so important – why? Because without these three events, mankind would likely have become extinct. Why? Because when a child reached age 12 back in the day – the typical age of puberty – mom and dad were likely dead – remember, the average lifespan was 25 years. So there was no mom or dad to run interference. If the species did not gear up, so to speak, in order to want and have sex, take risks and turn to their peers, it would have stayed in the cave, and… well…so much for mankind.

Want to Get Through to Teens – Talk to Their Brain

“Talk to their brain” means to talk to their brain where it’s at developmentally.

Image 3 below shows a time-lapse study of the brain’s development from age 5 – 20. Notice how the cerebral cortex portion of the brain doesn’t really start maturing until around age 16. It’s now understood its development continues until an average age of 22 for girls and 24 for boys. It is this part of the brain that serves as the brakes on a teen’s risk taking behaviors. It is also this part of the brain that can think through actions and consequences thereof, before taking said action, and better sort through reliable sources vs. unreliable sources. It is this part of the brain that will help a teen become the adult, with the adult-like thinking, judgment, perception, reasoning skills they need to succeed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t develop until years after puberty begins. For example, look at the brain of a 12 year old vs the brain of a 16 year old in Image 3. Now, imagine we gave the keys to our car to the 12 year old brain and told our child to go out and practice driving for the next 4 years so that they’re good and ready to take their driver’s test at age 16. We’d NEVER do that, and yet, we are often admonishing our teens not to have sex, not to take risks, and not to turn to their peers, not understanding the brain – developmentally – is compelled to do so. Simply because it’s a human brain; a human brain going through puberty.

This whole brain developmental process – especially that which occurs from ages 12 – early 20s – explains, in part, why teens suddenly seem to take risks, don’t know why they do what they do, turn to their peers for acceptance and guidance, and think mom and dad live on a different planet – withdrawing from them, lashing out at them in anger…. Their brains are wired to do so.

So until the cerebral cortex gets fully up and running with the critically important “thinking” neural networks in place, parents, teachers, coaches – anyone who engages with teens – need to better understand this brain development and learn how to talk to the teen brain in order to reach the teen.

For additional resources, check out:

This information can also help all concerned better understand How Teens Can Become an Alcoholics Before Age 21.

IMAGES Referenced in Post:

Image 1 - The "3-Brain" Brain Complex. Photo courtesy: Jessica Scott

Image 1 – The “3-Brain” Brain Complex. Photo courtesy: Jessica Scott

Want to get through to teens - talk to their brain.

Image 2: author’s photograph of the Evolution of the Human Brain portion from the Smithsonian Exhibit, Human Evolution, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?


Want to get through to teens - talk to their brain.

Image 3: Time Lapse Study of Brain Development, ages 12 – 20. [Ages on scan added by author.] Image courtesy: Dr. Paul Thompson. Helps us appreciate the way to talk to teens is to talk to their brains where their brain is at developmentally.


©2013 Lisa Frederiksen, BreakingTheCycles.com

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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24 Responses to Want to Get Through to Teens – Talk to Their Brain

  1. WOW! Such an interesting and informative article! Great pics as well that helps understand how teens’ brains work! Thank you, Lisa! Excellent!

  2. How interesting AND fascinating! I have always found the brain to be an enticing subject. What great advice for parents to realize that they are talking to a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time brain when reasoning with children and teens. Thanks SO much!

  3. Great explanation here. I too wish I had had this information when my children were young. It does explain so clearly the typical teen behavior and why they do it. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Aimee says:

    I just read an article in National Geographic (from like a year ago) about the teenage brain – with similar information and also fascinating. It gave me new understanding for teens and also sympathy for parents. Regardless if it’s normal, when your little baby starts taking crazy risks, it would still be difficult to watch.

  5. Karla Campos says:

    You just got me thinking, one of my children is close to that age. I am in for a ride I see : )

  6. Lisa, this was so informative about teen brain development. This completely makes sense about risk-taking, too. This is so important to know in order to get through to your teen!

  7. I love it! Saw a show where Dr Phil was explaining this – and how parents give boundaries that are way too large for the child’s development… thus the reason why they get in trouble. They are not ready for that choice yet. How interesting this is. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Norma! Setting boundaries is key, and as you said, they’re often set way to big. Another important thing for parents to remember is not to take what’s said by their teen personally. This can help parents with not reacting in anger or frustration.

  8. MamaRed says:

    Oh where were you darlin’ when I was ready to take my then 13-14 year old son and dump into the nearest dumpster (oh did I just say that!). Seriously, if we could understand this evolutionary brain development, it would make parenting … was going to say easier… more do-able!

    • I’m with you MamaRed! I so could have used this research, myself. It inspired me to create curriculum pieces for 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th grades, as well as high school students to help the children | teens, themselves, understand this and then how to use the power of their brains to stay in control. Slowly but surely…

  9. Lorrie says:

    Wow! This is quite a bit to think about. It seemed an essential part of relating to my children as teenagers was meeting them where they were and providing opportunities for them to reach a little further…healthy challenges through sports and travel, some academics (but we weren’t that kind of family). Now, my children are in the early 20s and pretty well-adjusted. Grateful for that!

    • It sounds like you did it they way scientists and medical professionals are suggesting it be done – you met your teens where their brains were at and involved them in healthy challenges through sports and travel and some academics – most importantly, you spent time with them, it sounds. The heavy emphasis on the academic piece that occurs in so many schools and families is part of what is overwhelming kids nowadays – it’s far too complicated and stress causing, which in and of itself (stress) causes brain changes. There’s a great effort called Race to Nowhere that is taking this on.

  10. Thanks Lisa – this made for a fascinating read – the pictures really helped to understand the development of teen -> adult brain evolution. It really explains why there is so much stress caused when this is not taken into account.

  11. Lena Milinovic says:

    Thank you so much for this article. We are currently going through addiction issues with our son and it helps to know that we are also dealing with a very under developed brain , couple that with insecurity, and teenage hormones and bingo you have yourself one hell of a circus act. Our kids need us to understand them and these types of articles are exactly the kinds of articals that can keep us well informed and therefore better prepared to offer the best support possible .Thank you

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