The Adolescent Brain: What’s Going On in There?

During adolescence, the brain is under construction developing from front to back. That means the brain’s CEO, the “prefrontal cortex” (located in the front of the brain), is developed last. Why is that important to know? Because the prefrontal cortex is the area that controls decision-making, planning, problem-solving, and impulse control. That means adolescents often lack the skills needed to stop and think in the moment, leading to those questionable decisions that make us scratch our heads and say “What were they thinking?!”

The adolescent brain goes through three important phases of development before being sculpted into an adult brain:

Phase 1: Blossoming - A sort of explosion happens in the brain where an overabundance of electrical connections is made. This allows for lots of growth and learning to happen, but the over abundance also leads to clouded thinking and poor judgment.

Phase 2: Pruning - In an effort to reduce this excess of connections, the brain then begins to strip away the underused connections in a “use it or lose it” approach. This is a crucial stage because it presents a window of opportunity where positive patterns of behavior and thinking can be reinforced. On the flip side, it is also a time when negative patterns, such as poor self-esteem or aggression can be locked in. Once these patterns are locked they follow us into adulthood and become very difficult to change.

Phase 3: Myelination – The final phase is like the glazing process used to set a clay sculpture. Each time a connection is used it becomes coated or insulated, causing those connections to become stronger and faster. The down side is the more a connection is used and insulated, the harder it is to undo or change. So if you start an unhealthy habit during adolescence, like smoking cigarettes, it’s harder to quit during adulthood due to this process. On the positive side, things such as learning 2+2 = 4 become set in our brains and can be recalled with minimal effort in adulthood.

Beside the major construction happening in the brain, adolescents are also dealing with fluctuations in hormones. This also contributes to the sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality changes and mood swings you may see.

Adolescence can be exhausting and overwhelming for parents, adults, and the adolescent’s themselves. The most important thing to do is become educated about what exactly is going on in an effort to help guide the child through this chaotic and confusing time. Education also helps adults keep their own emotions in check, reducing stress levels and preventing unwanted conflicts and arguments.

Both/And vs. Either/Or

“... for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, p. 11

I was writing a closing letter to the mother of a teenager and amongst the recommendations I had was to continue to work with her daughter on dialectical thinking. In this case, as with many of my clients, it is not just the teenager who needs to improve these skills. Mom too would benefit from more flexibility, open-mindedness, and acceptance that two people holding differing opinions may both be correct.
This type of thinking is as old as Plato. It comes from the Dialectic Method of Reasoning that attempts to resolve disagreements through rational discussion and a search for the truth. Rather than rigidly – and passionately - holding on to one’s view, a person using dialectical reasoning is flexible and unemotional in exploring an issue.

Dialectical thinking is an important component of empathy. In order to think this way, one must accept that something other than what they believe – even the polar opposite - may also be true.
When one is caught up in emotion the areas of the brain that control executive functioning (i.e. reason, logic, problem-solving, etc.) shut down, it becomes difficult to accept any version of the truth but one’s own. When a child is in this state, the attuned parent will recognize this and empathetically respond to the child, understanding that until the intense emotion passes there is no version of the truth except the one the child has settled upon.

So too, a parent must recognize when he/she is experiencing strong emotions that preclude unemotional thought and will put his/her agenda of “getting to the bottom of things” aside until emotions have cooled. Then both parent and child can look at an issue using dialectical skills and see whether this is a “both/and” situation.

Author and therapist Pat Harvey, LICSW and her co-author Jeannine Penzo, LICSW have written a book to help parents learn and teach their children dialectical skills: Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors (2009), Harbinger Publications. (There is also a version for parenting teens.)




Expecting but not Inspecting  

As parents we have a lot of expectations for our children. We expect them to clean their room, come home on time, and not spend time on inappropriate websites. All that is very positive. We need to be communicating our expectations to our children.


If it stops there though, there will likely be a problem in time. Children often do not do what we expect them to do. Sometimes you will not even know that is occurring unless you inspect and monitor your child's behavior.


The research is clear. Parents who supervise and monitor their children's behavior have children who are less likely to be involved in delinquent behaviors.


So what does this mean for you as a parent? Follow-through with making sure your children are doing what you expect of them.


This doesn't always mean that you have to be the one who is doing the inspecting. For instance you may make sure you have good Internet monitoring/protection software. Or you may have a neighbor watch your house when you are not home if you have teenagers who are there alone. On a more practical level just make sure your child cleaned their room when they say they have.


Behaviors that are monitored regularly tend to occur more frequently. Make sure you are encouraging and inspecting for the behavior you want from your children on a daily basis.





Dancing on the Head of a Pin

Not too long ago I heard a presentation by Dr. Paul Rasmussen entitled “The Human Condition and The Law of Movement.”  His main thesis was “Life is a process of movement through advancing time and changing circumstances grounded in the desire for things to go well while having to deal with the inevitable challenges that life presents.


Dr. Rasmussen also asserted that as babies we come into the world with an infantile orientation characterized by: “I want what I want when I want it and I don’t want what I don’t want when I don’t want it and when I don’t want it you will know it.”  As we age he said, we hopefully develop a more mature orientation characterized by: “I understand that I can’t necessarily do everything I want and some of the things that I don’t want to do simply need to get done.


The job of parents is to help their children move from the infantile orientation to the mature orientation.  That job is made more difficult when the child struggles with developmental delays, trauma, or mental illness, but the lesson still has to be learned in order for that child to eventually function in the world when he or she reaches adulthood.  Of course, we all are aware of adults who approach the world with an infantile orientation.    These individuals continuously struggle to meet their tasks of life (e.g. social, work, intimate) and being in relationship with them is generally unpleasant.


Now it is perhaps not surprising to think that people generally want their lives to go well.  What was somewhat surprising was that Dr. Rasmussen shared some research that indicated that the vast majority (80%) of our lives we are dealing with the fairly mundane if not downright unpleasant details of life.  It is only a relatively small percentage (20%) of life during which we experience those moments of joy, happiness, intimacy, laughter and connection.  So, no, it’s not just you - the 80-20 rule holds true for everyone – we all get stuck in traffic, have a kid home sick or get sick ourselves, and have bills to pay more often than our best friend calls just when we needed a laugh.  But, some people are better at accepting the 80% as an imperfect part of life they have to adapt to and recognizing the 20% as something to truly celebrate when it happens. 


Adults with a mature orientation – as well as children and adolescents whose parents have coached them towards developing that mature orientation – are far more likely to adapt when life does not go their way.  They are less likely to get stuck in rigid patterns that keep them stuck in a perpetually reactive stance towards frustration, disappointment, and annoyance.  And they are far more likely to truly see and experience the moments of joy.


Talking about Temperament


Temperament is the natural disposition of a person – a combination of mental, physical and emotional traits.  It is not reflected in occasional behavior, but is a pattern that is consistent over time.  Temperament can be thought of as the built-in wiring a child has from birth.  Temperament is generally described by a constellation of nine characteristics and each person – even children born to the same family – will have each of these nine characteristics in different proportions.

Activity Level  -

This trait is characterized by the amount of body movement one spontaneously generates.  A child with this trait at a difficult level will be very active, restless and fidgety, would rarely slow down and would hate to be confined.  Sitting still at a desk or the dinner table is very hard for this child.


Quality of Mood  -

This trait is characterized by the amount of pleasant and cheerful behavior (positive mood) one exhibits as contrasted with fussy, sad, and unpleasant behavior (negative mood.  A child with this trait at a difficult level might be cranky or overly serious and may appear to get little pleasure from life.  Getting along with peers may be difficult for this child.


Approach/Withdrawal –

This trait looks at how a person reacts to new people and new experiences.  A child with this trait at a difficult level is likely to be shy and clingy and may stubbornly refuse to go forward in new situations.  This child may struggle with school refusal and making new friends.


Rhythmicity (Biological Regularity) –

This trait looks at a person’s eating, sleeping and elimination habits.  A child with this trait at a difficult level might get hungry and tired at unpredictable times making regular meal and bed times a source of conflict.  This child may be hard to potty train.


Adaptability –

This trait is characterized by how quickly or slowly a person adapts to change in routines or overcomes an initial negative response.  A child with this trait at a difficult level is likely to be anxious and resistant to changes in schedule, food or clothing.  He/she can be inflexible and particular which may be a source of stress when unexpected events occur in the family or classroom.


Sensory Threshold –

This trait looks at how sensitive a person is to sensory stimuli – particularly unpleasant stimuli - in the environment (e.g. noise, lights, smells, tastes, the weather, pain, etc.)  A child with this trait at a difficult level will be easily bothered by the way food or people smell, how clothes feel, and the brightness of lights.  This sensitivity can cause irritability and a lack of focus.


Intensity of Reaction -
This trait is characterized by how strongly one reacts to situations – it is the amount of energy of mood expression one puts out whether positive or negative.  A child with this trait at a difficult level would be loud and forceful in all emotional responses.  This can result in confusion and irritation from others who expect a more subtle response.


Distractibility –

This trait looks at how easily one is distracted by unexpected stimuli.  A child with this trait at a difficult level will likely have trouble concentrating and paying attention, may tend to get lost in his/her own thoughts rather than listening, and often forgets instructions because he/she was only half paying attention.  This can create difficulties in school and be a source of stress at home.


Persistence (Attention Span) -

This trait is characterized by how long a person will stay at a difficult task without giving up.  While persistence can be a very useful trait for many things, a child with this trait at a difficult level is likely to be extremely stubborn, will not give in, and might persevere in a tantrum for an hour or more.


Using the chart below rate your child for each of these characteristics as E (easy), M (moderate), or D (difficult.)  Then rate yourself.



Your Child


Activity Level 

E               M               D

E               M               D

Quality of Mood

E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D

Sensory Threshold

E               M               D

E               M               D

Intensity of Reaction

E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


E               M               D

E               M               D


When children have one or more traits described as difficult, they can be a challenge, but the challenge will be exacerbated if their caretaker’s temperament does not provide a good fit.  For example, a child who reacts intensely in all situations (i.e. is rated D in the Intensity of Reaction trait) might be difficult for a parent whose sensory threshold is low (i.e. the parent is rated D in the Sensory Threshold trait).  A child with a difficult (i.e. high) activity level might cause conflict with a parent who has an easy (i.e. low) activity level.  And a parent and child who are both extremely persistent (i.e. on the difficult end of this trait) may find themselves in chronic power struggles.


Much of parenting is understanding what is going on for our children and being proactive as often as possible to keep things running smoothly.  Temperament and each of these individual traits is an ingrained part of our and our children’s personalities.  We might not be able to change them, but we can choose how we react to things we cannot change.  Accepting our children for who they are, realizing our inherent contribution to conflicts with them, and finding ways to celebrate their uniqueness – even when it occasionally drives us crazy – will reduce conflict and tension.


Adapted from Conscious Discipline, 7 Basic Skills for Brain Smart Classroom Management, Dr. Becky Bailey, 2000