The Adolescent Brain

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Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash

By Mayumi Elk Eagle, AMFT, APCC

You may be puzzled to see why adolescents are taking risks and sometimes indulging in dangerous activities. You may feel like your teenage children have changed. It turns out that human brains undergo a reconstruction process during the teenage years, and “it does not finish developing and maturing until the mid-to-late 20s” (National Institute of Mental health, n.d.). Human brains grow to full size around 11 years old for girls and 14 years old for boys (National Institute of Mental health, n.d.). Still, neural networks have already begun reorganizing to have a sufficient network inside of their brains. During this process, they may act differently from previous years.

Their risk-taking behavior is also important from an evolutionary perspective. Adolescence is a significant time in our lives as we prepare to leave familiar territories, such as their families and communities, and venture into unfamiliar territories. Without these motivations to be adventurous, humans could be stuck in one place and could lose the opportunity to explore a different world out there. Teenagers are trying to form their tribes, so the opinions of their peers may matter more than their families’ opinions during this period.

However, how parents and other adults navigate these changes will impact how teens develop their brains. They will integrate their experiences, including interactions with adults, into their brain networks as integration. This is the time many teenagers start drinking, smoking cigarettes, or using drugs. Understand that teenagers are developing their brains even though you may not see it from the outside, so embrace “a thoughtful belief and value” (Siegel, 2012, p. 81).

Just saying ‘don’t do it’ is not enough. (Siegel, 2012, p. 81). For example, mentioning how cigarette companies are making money from manipulating their images to sell their products may work better than mentioning the adverse health effects (Siegel, 2012). Take time to have serious conversations. You may feel that they are not listening, but they are listening and watching you.


Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of Human Relationships. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-7-things-to-know/index.shtml

Siegel, D. J. (2012). Brainstorm. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Penguin.

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