Understanding your teenager

After the toddler years, parenting a teenager can be the next most challenging phase for a family. Parents can feel utter frustration at the self-centred child in front of them who seems to be consistently making poor decisions, engaging in risky behaviour and let’s not mention the hormonal mood swings.

What happened to my child?

Seemingly overnight, parents feel like they are confronted by a stranger where their child used to be. Adolescence, the period between 13 and 19 years of age, is a period of huge emotional and physical changes and many of the subsequent emotional outbursts and moodiness are not just down to hormones.

Brain development

Up until a few years ago, the human brain was considered virtually developed by the age of 3. However, with the growth in MRI scanning it has been possible to see inside the brain and understand better how it works. As a result, scientists have discovered that the brain undergoes a growth spurt during the teenage years which goes some way to understanding the changes in behaviour. It is now thought that the brain is not fully developed until around 23 years of age.

Pre-front cortex

The main change is that unused connections in the thinking and processing part of the brain ( the grey matter) are ‘pruned’ away, while other connections are strengthened. The brain is improving efficiency based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.

This process begins in the back of the brain, while the front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is remodelled last. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, responsible for the ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems and control impulses. Changes in this part continue into early adulthood.

Understanding Teens


While the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers might rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour.

The MRI images below show how the teen brain and an adult brain work when reading emotions.

understanding your teenager

Teenage brain using the amgydala (highlighted) to read emotions in people.

understanding your teenager

Adult brain using the pre-frontal cortex (highlighted) to read emotions in people.


While the brain is developing your teenager might:

  • take more risks, or engage in risky behaviour
  • have strong emotional outbursts
  • make impulsive decisions

Understanding that all of these things are part of natural brain development can assist a family in helping their child make a smooth transition from teen to adult. Our psychologist, Sally Kenney, has some practical tips on how to get through these challenging times.

Actively listen to your teenager

“You don’t understand!” is a common statement heard in households inhabited by teenagers. Make sure you actively listen to your teenager: give them your full attention, paraphrase, clarify and reflect, and resist the temptation to correct or reframe their perspective until you have heard what they have to say. This way your teenager will see that you can listen, understand and empathise, even if you ultimately don’t agree. A teenager’s emotional experience can be tumultuous and having opportunities to express their feelings and be met with an empathic, rather than a corrective, response is vital in helping them through this developmental stage.

Give opportunities for your teenager to win your trust

We all know that teenagers often underestimate the risks involved in some situations and it can be scary to let off the leash. Identifying step-by-step opportunities for your teenager to show you that they can be trusted. For example, letting them get home by themselves from an outing with friends, or allowing them to have a social media account, meets their developing need for independence whilst encouraging an open dialogue about appropriate risk taking.

 Maintain family traditions, routines and rituals

Your teenager might roll their eyes at your enthusiasm that it’s Friday family board games night again, or be looking for a way to get out of Sunday lunch at Aunty Marg’s, but persist! Whilst the developmental need to differentiate and form their own identity will sometimes manifest as a rejection of family routines and traditions, these are an important element of creating the family closeness that provides your teenager with a safe base.

Enjoy the challenge of a spirited debate

Teenagers will often use the safe base of secure family relationships to test out their debating skills. Sometimes it might seem as though your teenager takes a perspective different to your own specifically to provoke a fight. Model for your teenager that you can have a difference of opinion whilst respecting each other’s opinions. If you’re sure that they’re wrong or misguided, encourage them to think through the implications of their position rather than telling them why they’re wrong. Avoiding getting caught in a battle for the last word can help you prevent the debate turning into a personal power struggle.

Don’t be scared of social media

Whether or not we agree that things were better before the internet: the net, and social media, is here to stay. In order to manage the implications of the permanence of what is posted online, the speed with which information can spread and the pressure to be immediately responsive, teenagers have to exercise a degree of decision-making skill and maturity that they don’t always have. Teenagers are less likely to share their online difficulties with parents who they see as having demonised social media. They anticipate a response that blames social media and, by extension, them, for the problems that arise. Get online with your teenager. Get them to show you how to set up your own social media accounts, require them to add you as a friend or follower and get used to this being one thing that your teenager is likely to know a lot more about than you do!

Resources: Raising Children website

Raising teens today: dealing with sex, drugs & homework by Ian Lambie and  Les Simmonds

(available in the Kilvington library) 

Raising real people : a guide for parents of teenagers by Andrew Fuller

(available in the Kilvington library)