Teenage brain development: the basics
Children’s brains have a massive growth spurt when they’re very young. By the time they’re six, their brains are already about 90-95% of adult size. The early years are a critical time for brain development, but the brain still needs a lot of remodelling before it can function as an adult brain.
This brain remodelling happens intensively during adolescence, continuing until your child is in their mid-20s. Brain change depends on age, experience and hormonal changes in puberty.
Inside the teenage brain
Adolescence is a time of significant growth and development inside the teenage brain.
The main change is that unused connections in the thinking and processing part of your child’s brain (called the grey matter) are ‘pruned’ away. At the same time, other connections are strengthened. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.
This pruning process begins in the back of the brain. 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 your child’s ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems and control impulses. Changes in this part of the brain continue into early adulthood.
Because 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.
Building a healthy teenage brain
The combination of your child’s unique brain and environment influences the way your child acts, thinks and feels. For example, your child’s preferred activities and skills might become ‘hard-wired’ in the brain.
How teenagers spend their time is crucial to brain development. So it’s worth thinking about the range of activities and experiences your child is into – music, sports, study, languages, video games. How are these shaping the sort of brain your child will take into adulthood?
You're an important part of your child’s environment. You mean a lot to your child. How you guide and influence your child will be important in helping your child to build a healthy brain too.
You can do this by:
- encouraging positive behaviour
- promoting good thinking skills
- helping your child get plenty of sleep.
Behaviour strategies for teenage brain development
While your child’s brain is developing, your child might:
- choose high-risk activities or risky behaviour
- express more and stronger emotions
- make impulsive decisions.
Here are some tips for encouraging good behaviour and strengthening positive brain connections:
- Let your child take some healthy risks. New and different experiences help your child develop an independent identity, explore grown-up behaviour, and move towards independence.
- Help your child find new creative and expressive outlets for feelings. Your child might be expressing and trying to control new emotions. Many teenagers find that doing or watching sport or music, writing and other art forms are good outlets.
- Talk through decisions step by step with your child. Ask about possible courses of action your child might choose, and talk through potential consequences. Encourage your child to weigh up positive consequences or rewards against negative ones.
- Use family routines to give your child’s life some structure. These might be based around school and family timetables.
- Provide boundaries and opportunities for negotiating those boundaries. Young people need guidance and limit-setting from their parents and other adults.
- Offer frequent praise and positive rewards for desired behaviour. This reinforces pathways in your child’s brain.
- Be a positive role model. Your behaviour will show your child the behaviour you expect.
- Stay connected with your child. You’ll probably want to keep an eye on your child’s activities and friends. Being open and approachable can help you with this.
- Talk with your child about their developing brain. Understanding this important period of growth might help your child process their feelings. It might also make taking care of the brain more interesting for your child.
Thinking strategies for teenage brain development
Brain growth and development during these years means that your child will start to:
- think more logically
- think about things more abstractly and understand that issues aren’t always simple
- pick up more on other people’s emotional cues
- solve complex problems in a logical way, and see problems from different perspectives
- get a better perspective on the future.
You can support the development of your child’s thinking with the following strategies:
- Encourage empathy. Talk about feelings – yours, your child’s and other people’s. Highlight the fact that other people have different perspectives and circumstances. Reinforce that many people can be affected by one action.
- Emphasise the immediate and long-term consequences of actions. The part of the brain responsible for future thinking (the prefrontal cortex) is still developing. If you talk about how your child’s actions influence both the present and the future, you can help the healthy development of your child’s prefrontal cortex.
- Try to match your language level to the level of your child’s understanding. For important information, you can check your child has understood by asking your child to tell you in their own words what they’ve just heard.
- Help your child develop decision-making and problem-solving skills. You and your child could work through a process that involves defining problems, listing options, and considering outcomes that everyone is happy with. Role-modelling these skills is important too.
Sleep and teenage brain development
During adolescence, sleep patterns change because of hormonal changes in the brain. But children still need plenty of sleep for their overall health and development, including their brain development.
These tips can help your child get they sleep they need:
- Ensure your child has a comfortable, quiet sleep environment.
- Encourage ‘winding down’ before bed, away from screens including phones.
- Encourage your child to go to bed and wake up at regular times each day.
- Encourage your child to get 8-10 hours of sleep each night.