The Teen Brain: Changing, Complex, and Reward-Sensitive

Posted November 26, 2012 by

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Recently, I heard a news story about studies concerning the teen brain presented at the latest Society of Neuroscience meeting, which had some pretty interesting conclusions.  When most people think of teens, the stereotypical image is that of poor decision-making, impulsive actions, and narrow focus on one thing, usually something negative.  One researcher summed up previous studies describing the teen brain as a “speeding car with no steering wheel and no brake.”  What was fascinating about these studies is that it showed the teen brain is much more complex than previously thought.

One study presented showed that teens use much more of their brain when making decisions when compared to adults, pulling information from various areas to come to their conclusions.  Another study focused on the teen brain’s reward system, and showed that, compared with adults, teens tend to be more sensitive to earning rewards and positive feedback, and tend to wait longer to make decisions that earn rewards.  Overall, the studies point out that the teen brain is constantly changing and sensitive to outside stimuli.  The theory tends to be that the teen brain is in the process of changing into an adult brain which will need to handle different issues than the previous generation.

So what does this mean for us as parents outside of a laboratory?  It actually works really well with one of the tools we talk about during 1-on-1 Coaching: positive reinforcement, or as it’s popularly known, “Catch ‘em being good.”  One of the basic principles around changing behavior is acknowledging and rewarding the behavior you want to see, while ignoring and discouraging the behavior that you want to stop.  It may be more beneficial for parents of teens to reward the positive behavior rather than constantly giving consequences for ineffective behavior.

What this might look like in a real world example is the following: Trina, 15, has been having difficulty in school.  She is not doing her work either in the classroom or at home, and has been getting in trouble as well for talking in class.  Trina’s parents decide to problem solve with her about what is going on.  Although it is difficult to get through the conversation, her parents discover that she is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work she has, and also does not understand much of what the teachers are talking about.  Trina effectively decides to “shut down” and not do anything as a way to cope with this anxiety.  Rather than grounding her until her grades come up, Trina’s parents talk with her about some steps to take to address this, and she decides that she is willing to meet with her teachers after school and during study periods to talk about how she can start bringing her grades up.  Trina’s parents also decide that they will reward her for each teacher she meets with, and for doing her usual homework and 30 minutes of missed work daily to bring her grades back up.  If she chooses not to do her work that day, her parents don’t yell, scream, threaten or take away privileges — they just don’t give her the incentive for that day.  Although it will be a long process, Trina has started to turn her grades around and is even starting to move away from her friends during class so she can pay attention.

Related: 7 Ways to Stop the Power Struggle Over Homework.

The takeaway from all this is that the teen brain is constantly changing and taking in new information, and adapting that information to help adolescents become successful adults.  To paraphrase one scientist, the teen brain is not that of a child, and it is not a defective adult brain.  It is its own entity, and understanding how it works might help us to parent more effectively.


Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated 1-on-1 Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.

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