Teen Brain Development: Why Teens Do What They Do

The teen brain can feel like a mystery.

The emotions and behaviors that people experience during the adolescent years are unlike any other time of our lives.

Being a teen is hard.

The middle school and high school years are physically demanding and emotionally challenging.

Adolescents are learning who they are and deciding who they want to become. They’re driven by their own desire for significance and, at the same time, are highly impressionable by their peers.

While they are growing up physically and intellectually, there are also significant neurological developments that are still taking place that impact their wellbeing and susceptibility to risk taking and negative peer influence.

Adolescent Developmental Milestones

The CDC offers insights on childhood development that impact the teen years:

The middle childhood years of 9-11 are when children begin to form stronger more complex relationships with the same sex. They become more aware of their bodies as puberty sets in and they are becoming more susceptible to peer pressure.

The young teen years of 12-14 can be challenging as teens are in between a.) the high expectations they have of themselves b.) the high expectations they feel from others and c.) their own lack of confidence. They express more concern for their body image and reputation and are increasingly influenced by their peer group.

Teenagers in the 15-17 age range are showing more interest in romantic relationships and at the same time are acting more independently from parents. These teenagers, according to the CDC, may feel a lot of sadness or depression, which can lead to poor grades, alcohol or drug use, unsafe sex, and other problems.

Teens Think With Their Feelings

While their brains are developing, KidsHealth.org suggests that there have been many experiments that show that teens tend to think with their emotions. Their hormones are changing, their familial and peer relationships are complex, and their developing emotions add another layer of challenges.

An example is how teens can misinterpret emotions and see anger instead of anxiety in others which can lead to miscommunication and conflict. This can contribute to the mood swings that are a normal part of the adolescent years and can cause relationship challenges.

Adolescent Brains Are Inclined To Take Risks

On the outside, teens are known for taking greater risks and being more susceptible to trying dangerous activities. But brain studies show that the brain development stage of teenagers actually makes them wired to take risks. Newport Academy discusses how the risk taking tendencies of the teen brain may lead to self-destructive risk taking such as bullying, fighting, unsafe sexual behavior, alcohol and substance use, and poor self care.

One study, for example, found that adolescents around 14 years old took twice as many risks in a driving simulation when they were being watched by peers than those being tested alone.

Newport Academy further discuss that because the teen brain is still being developed, the use of drugs and alcohol are more dangerous for teens and can negatively impact further development.


When To Get Help

If you’re feeling concerned about a friend of family member, it can be hard to know if they are struggling and need your support.

It’s normal for teens to have ups and downs, but as a friend or family member, we understand that you want to be there when they need help.

We published a FREE guide that will walk you through the 6 signs that someone needs help now. Access it for free here.