Sep 21, 2010 by Sherry Francis, Ed.D

The Adolescent Brain

Last week I was sitting in a fast-food drive-thru when I noticed the car in front of me held what appeared to be an under-age driver and friend. They placed their order and pulled forward barely able to see over the steering wheel and dashboard. I am thinking, oh dear, do the parents know they have taken the car? As their order was handed out of the drive-thru window both seats popped up simultaneously revealing two teenage boys. I guess it’s cool to go through the fast-food drive-thru with the car seats fully reclined!

How do you explain adolescent behavior? This, of course, is the million dollar question that has been asked by adults for a long time. A question that finally has some answers coming out of brain research. So, you may ask, what does the brain have to do with adolescent behavior? Well, actually everything!

One very important factor to note is the adolescent brain is still under construction; something we tend to forget when we look at these “young adults.” Instead of thinking of the adolescent brain as a house that is completely built and only needs to have furnishings added, we need to think of the adolescent brain as a house that is only framed and still needs walls, wiring and a roof. (1, p167)

Sheryl G. Feinstein, author of Secrets of the Teenage Brain: Research-Based Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Today’s Adolescents, Second Edition,discusses the many aspects of the adolescent brain giving rise to an understanding it is a whirlwind of complexities and contradictions. She notes in the chapter on cognition and learningthe adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to novelty, overcomplicates problems, idealizes the world, and has one saying one thing while doing another. In looking at the social brain and communication, Feinstein points out, because the adolescent brain relies more on the amygdala (an area of the brain that processes and remembers emotions) than on the frontal lobes (the part of the brain that is involved in decision making, language, problem solving, planning and controlling sense of self) adolescents experience emotions before they can verbally articulate them, thus setting the stage for emotional outbursts. In addition, adolescent emotions can easily cement lifelong memories or form powerful learning blocks.

Anyone who has worked with adolescents knows how up and down they can be from day to day – some days they appear to be with it and other days you wonder if they are even on this planet. What we now know is adolescence is a time of great fluctuation in the levels of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain that excite and inhibit behaviors. When levels of these chemicals go awry adolescents face a variety of mental upheavals that can lead to depression, eating disorders, and shifts in sleep habits.

And, let us not forget the risk-taking behavior adolescents’ exhibit that has adults shaking their heads in despair and wondering if they have a brain at all. Actually, it is the brain that is heavily involved in this risky behavior. Adolescents are very susceptible to the dopamine rushes (a chemical in the brain associated with pleasure) that comes with risk taking. Again, because they rely on the emotional amygdala more than the rational frontal lobes, adolescents have trouble foreseeing the consequences of risky behavior, and giving them the sense of invincibility. Maybe this sense of invincibility is one of the reasons they so closely relate to our fictional “super heroes.”

So, the next time an adolescent turns to you and says “WHAT are you looking at?” you know that is not an alien being from another planet, but rather someone who is “going through startling growth and streamlining in the brain; an intelligent creature not yet accustomed to their (unevenly) burgeoning mental strengths and capabilities.” (1, p167)

For anyone who works with, lives with, or even knows an adolescent, I encourage you to read the latest research and literature on the adolescent brain. There is a wealth of new information and insight into that enigma called “teenager.” Here are some good reads to get you started:

Secrets of the Teenage Brain: Research-Based Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Today’s Adolescents, Second Edition, Sheryl G. Feinstein, Corwin Press (2009)

Unleashing the Potential of the Teenage Brain: 10 Powerful Ideas, Barry Corbin, Corwin Press (2008)

The Teen Brain Book: Who & What Are You?,Dale Carlson, Brick Publishing House (2004)

The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy, Robert Sylwester, Corwin Press (2007)


  1. Feinstein, S.G. (2009) Secrets of the Teenage Brain: Research-Based Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Today’s Adolescents, Second Edition, Corwin Press.