The Brain: Why are teens difficult?! My “adolescent brain” findings and how to support them in their awkward stages.

I have been away from the blog for quite some time.  It doesn’t mean that I haven’t been typing…..and thinking…just not in the scope of the “I am Rachel Kathleen” blog.

I had to take a graduate course…to jump through a “renewal of certification” hoop.  I figured if I was going to do so, I might as well take a class about something that I am passionate about.  I am a parent, a teacher, coach, and supposedly  have “mastery” in Health and Biology.  I am a friend and life long learner.  The class covered all bases (and more).

The course was based on this book:

Why Do They Act That Way? It is a worthwhile read for any that are interested in teenagers, brain development, parenting, teaching…honestly, there is something for everyone to glean from this book.

I will break down the most fascinating and intriguing aspects that I learned from this book.

Here are 8 MAJOR POINTS that have changed my thinking a little or a lot in regards to teenagers and brain development:


Teens do NOT have fully developed brains (Haha).  No, really.  For years it was thought that since teens can function logically at the same level as adults–that means a teenager’s brain is fully developed and potential was already reached.  This is not true .  (see number 2)

My application:  Be patient.  They aren’t fully developed yet.


Teen brains analyze emotions and facial expressions from a different part of the brain than adults.  That is correct.  Adults, analyze the feelings and emotions (or perceived emotions of others) through the PFC (Pre frontal cortex) It is a logically sound area of the brain that is fully developed in (most) adults.  Teens, however, judge emotions from a completely different area of the brain called the amygdala.  This area of the brain is the seat of “fight or flight” and is a reactive area of the brain.  Teens continue to rely on this are of the brain to (often wrongfully) interpret emotions until the PFC is fully developed.  This might explain why a teen is so reactive, doesn’t understand how their emotions all of a sudden flare, and why they often misjudge each other’s feelings and the teacher or parent’s.  It is the adults job (coach, parent, teacher), to verbalize our own emotions, and be the “voice of reason” in being an actual TOOL to help teens interpret emotions correctly.  Often, they simply misjudge emotions from the amygdala of the brain.

My application:  Be patient, understand that teens might misread my emotions.  I can be a helpful tool in communicating my actual emotions for a teen or my own kids, before they misinterpret and asking using phrases like “I am gathering that you are angry, is this correct?”, or “I am not angry, I am disappointed you didn’t complete (XYZ), but I am not angry”


The stage of adolescence is getting longer (starting earlier and ending later). In fact, it may last up to 15 years.  A few reasons for why this is happening:

a.  The onset of Adolescence occurring sooner:  Four theories as to why.  1.  Increase of nutrition in our country. More children are well nourished and not malnourished. 2.   Increase in overweight children and obesity increases the onset of puberty.  3.  Possibly, that with the increase in hormones, preservatives and additives in food, we may be seeing an earlier onset in adolescence.  4.   Increase in sexual images on TV, in media, and music etc, increases the release of sex hormones in adolescents and tells their brains they are ready to develop. ***#4 Was a new thought to me, and is very interesting and definitely gives me yet another reason to screen what my kiddos watch.

b.  There is also research and commentary on the extension of adolescence to nearly 25 years of age. It is believed that adolescence used to end sooner, because children/teens began taking adult roles and developing real responsibilities earlier.  As students completed schooling at age 17 or 18 (or even before), they often had to take on real jobs to support themselves and their families.   In recent years, with added training and education, more teens are going to college, and thus are prolonging the time that they take on “real jobs and responsibilities” until after college graduation, even graduate school or later. This prolongs adolescent development and doesn’t allow for the final step in “growing into an adult”.

My application:  First,  make sure that my own kids aren’t watching anything with sexual activity and really keep an eye on all forms of technology.  Second, I really want to make sure that my kiddos develop pre frontal cortexes!  I think I can give my own children more “real life” responsibilities (chores, budgeting, etc) , and have them work real jobs when they are old enough.  This could mean helping them find flexible jobs, and earning their own money to pay for things and tithe.  At the time, I resented that my parents did this with me, (and not my brothers), but I am grateful now, because I did grow up and have been fairly responsible throughout my  life.


Alcohol interacts differently in teens than adults.  They actually do NOT feel the effects of alcohol such as sleepiness or incoherent behaviors as soon as adults.  So, they drink more and binge to a greater degree because their bodies aren’t “feeling it” yet.  This proves a HUGE risk.  Also, since their brains are wiring to learn and “like” certain things. So if alcohol, nicotine, or video games release more dopamine (the good feeling hormone), they get accustomed to this kind of dopamine “good feeling” and it can affect their need for dopamine for the rest of their lives.  It also research shows that alcohol effects teens short term memories more than adults.

Nicotine interacts with over 2 dozen neurotransmitters, and also increases the number of actual receptors and how these neurotransmitters are released.  This has a huge impact on a teen brain that is developing, blossoming and pruning and actually learning how to release these neurotransmitters regularly and regulate.  This makes nicotine extremely addictive to teens – in particular.

Furthermore, watching violence and playing violent video games activates the “Anger seat” in the brain and very little firing is going on in the PFC (Pre frontal Cortex).  This could mean less connections in the logical PFC, and more firing and reliance on the amygdala (anger seat).  This could lead to violence continuing throughout a teens life, carrying into their adult life.

My application:  WHOA. Make sure that I know the games my kids play, limit the games they play, avoid violent movies and teach them about nicotine, alcohol and violence and their negative effects.  


Teens are learning more than ever HOW to interact with others.  The bad, is that they can learn these brain connections from things like video games or television.  The GOOD, however, is that if teens are involved in service projects and volunteer type opportunities, there is a POSITIVE impact on their relationship skills for the rest of their lives.  These positive social interactions create positive brain firing.

My Application:  Encourage teens to serve.  Make sure my kids are involved in helping others on a regular basis, especially in the teen years when they are busy and we could make a million excuses to not serve. Creating positive relational connections in the teen years will carry over positively for the rest of their lives.


Teen “Falling in Love” relationships typically only last 3 months.  There is a brain related reason for this.    Dopamine is released in high levels when one is experiencing the extreme emotion of being “in love”.  Norepinephrine (adrenaline) causes heart-racing and sweaty palms.  Serotonin is the mood stabilizer hormone in the brain and when it drops it results in some of the ‘sadness’ or ‘obsessive behaviors’ that accompany being in love. Because the teens brain is in a stage of trying to regulate these hormones, they release unpredictably, but the reality is, the brain can not sustain high levels of these hormones for long–in fact it can only last 3, maybe 4 months, so they eventually drop and stabilize, thus the teen is “out of love”.  Thus the average teen relationship only lasts around 3 months.  

My application:  Tell my kids (and those whom I teach) about this idea, and that maybe it is just better to wait to date until these hormones level out (hahaha).  Might save a few broken hearts and avert temptation. Teens can’t act on this knowledge if they don’t know, I suppose.   


There are as many as fifty different brain chemicals involved in sleeping, however melatonin is one that plays a major role. Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted in brain after an entire day of circadian input from the time of day. As light comes into the eyes, signals are sent to the brain to either release melatonin (to create sleepiness) or to stop secreting it (after a time of sleeping). When it gets dark, the hypothalamus tells the pineal gland that it is time to increase the production of melatonin. The level of melatonin increases and tells your body that it is sleepy. After your body has received enough sleep, the brain then communicates with the pineal gland to stop secreting melatonin, causing a drop in hormone level, and therefore causing you to stir. The connections to teens is that as puberty hits, the melatonin surge occurs later and later in the evening, and the melatonin drop happens later in the morning. The result is adolescents are awake later at night and they are groggier in the morning when the rest of the family is waking up.  An average adult needs 7 hours of sleep and because of the intense growth, development and brain firing, an average teen needs 9-9.5 hours of sleep.

My application:  Turn off screens, and create a quiet, dark and peaceful environment in the house.  It can help a teen who hasn’t released melatonin yet, to become sleepier and get to bed a little sooner.  Allow them to sleep in when they have the opportunity.


Since  adolescence is a primary time of “Firing and wiring” in the brain, a traumatic event can slow that development or completely stop and hinder the development that would or should be occurring at that time.  A MAJOR area of brain development during adolescence is Emotional development.  Therefore,  it is clear  that the emotional development of a teen can be stunted.  Trauma is defined as anything that disrupts the daily life of an individual.  This could be abuse, divorce, a severe illness, death or loss, really anything that effects a person who has no control over that event.

My application:  Check in on kids who are experiencing difficulty–this could mean my kids friends who have divorcing parents or who may have experienced something traumatic.  Provide positive conversation, and in some cases, offer to help find a counselor.  When a student, friend, or someone I know seems emotionally disconnected or perhaps unstable, understand there might be a deeper issue.  Also, this may mean reaching out to someone (As an adult) or a teen (whom I know, coach, teach…) who seem to have emotional difficulty.

There is so much more, but these are the 8 items that really seemed to standout to me during my class.

If you are interested in more information on the adolescent brain you can also check out this PBS Frontline series on the Teen Brain:

PBS Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain


One thought on “The Brain: Why are teens difficult?! My “adolescent brain” findings and how to support them in their awkward stages.

  1. This is a really great entry Rachel, thank you. I’d love to trade you this book for one I just finished called Escaping Endless Adolescence. It really speaks to the 3rd point you made. 🙂

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