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What Parents Need to Know About the Teenage Brain

Posted by A Thankful Parent on Mar 12, 2019 10:00:00 AM

teenage brain development

Many of us survive our children’s teen years by faith. We search the Scriptures, ask for wise counsel, and spend lots of time on our knees. 2 Peter 1:5-7 reminds us to seek knowledge as well:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

During a recent search for knowledge on teens, I came across Dr. Frances E. Jensen’s book The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.  Dr. Frances E. Jensen has contributed to the field of neuroscience for the last 30 years. She teaches neurology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She also raised two sons.

The book explores the brain’s anatomy and development. According to Dr. Jensen, adolescence is a time when the teenage brain is turbo-charged for learning, building memory (gray matter), and connections (white matter). It is also a period of vulnerability due to lack of judgement. Among the many topics Dr. Jensen addresses, you will find sleep, risk-taking, tobacco, alcohol, pot, hard drugs, stress, mental illness, technology, concussions, and crime.

What do parents need to know about the teenage brain to love and guide their teens well? 


  1. A teenager’s gaps in executive function, turbulent emotions, or impulsiveness might simply point to their immature frontal lobe and an over-excitable amygdala.  As Dr. Jensen explains, biology is not an excuse for impulsive teen behavior, but it is part of an explanation. A teen’s impulsive response to stress should evoke our compassion.  We would do well to remember to be proactive in providing good counsel, and intentional about keeping the lines of communication open.  Does this bring Deuteronomy 6:7 and Ephesians 6:4 to your mind?
  2. Consider this: “Obsessive gaming in the adolescent, to the exclusion of most other activities appears, like addiction, to have both immediate negative effects and long-term negative effects of the brain” (Jensen 214). Dr. Jensen cites a Chinese study noting a shrinkage of gray matter linked to speech, emotion, memory, motor control, and goal direction. The brain’s response to addiction to the internet “involves the same reward center as drugs,” (Jensen 206). On the subject of gaming, Jensen concedes a modest amount of gaming can be good for the brain (Jensen 214), but later qualifies symptoms of ADHD and inattention become more severe with computer game exposure.                                                                                                                                                   brain development in teenagers      
  3. We may believe we are good at doing two tasks at the same time, but the research indicates “multi-tasking actually interferes with learning in adolescents…it takes anywhere from 25% and 400% longer for a teenager to complete his or her homework if multitasking is involved.” (Jensen 218). Dr. Jensen is blunt about the myth of multi-tasking and technology. She defines multi-tasking as doing two cognitive tasks (i.e., studying and checking texts) at the same time. The brain science indicates we are actually switching between two tasks at a faster pace, thus diminishing our attention to both tasks.  If you are reading this and find yourself between the lines as well, you are not alone. Silicon Valley executives are now recommending their elite take time to unplug from screens.
  4. Dr. Jensen strongly recommends adolescents put their phones away before sleep. In the chapter on sleep, she explains how vital sleep is for encoding memory and managing stress. If your child feels the need to always be connected and available to other adolescents, step up and intervene. Your child needs you to parent differently through the teen years.  Be their coach through adolescence. You are wiser than their crowd of adolescent friends. Remember the immature amygdala (part of the brain involved with emotions) and incomplete frontal lobe ( part of the brain concerned with behavior, learning, personality, and voluntary movement)

The Teenage Brain was well worth my time. I now have better understanding of the memory, executive function, and emotions of teenagers.

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Topics: Parenting