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Teen Brain

Understanding the teen brain

  • There are essentially two brains at work in a teenager, the emotional and the rational.
  • During the teenage years, the emotional brain develops first; it dominates a teen’s thinking and behaviour.
  • The emotional brain is excited by taking risks and seeking thrilling experiences.
  • The frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for reasoning, develops later.
  • Reasoning, or the rational brain, is responsible for planning, organizing, controlling impulses and self-awareness.
  • Teens are being driven by an emotional brain that suggests they “do it now”, while the rational suggestions of “stop and think about it” are taking a back seat.
  • A teen is often speaking or acting without thinking about the potential outcome or consequences.

Top 5 tips for parents

  1. Provide guidance, opportunities, and environments that promote the development of the rational or “thinking” brain.
    • Help your teen to plan ahead for situations (e.g., going on an outing with friends)
  2. Problem-solve possible scenarios together. Talk about your concerns.
  3. If you find yourself in conflict with your teen, remember that your teen is governed by emotions.
  4. Stay calm. Don’t engage in a power struggle about how to think and who is right.
  5. Focus on the important issues of health and safety, and help your teen think of the possible outcomes of their actions. Provide opportunities for safe risk taking (performing in front of an audience, skateboarding or skiing using appropriate safety equipment).

Teen brains and substance use: What is the problem?

  • This thrill seeking behaviour is the reason some teens experiment with substances like alcohol, cannabis or other drugs.
  • It is also a time in development when the brain is more sensitive to damage from substance use.
  • Experts say heavy drinking during adolescence can lead to changes in the frontal cortex of the brain, the part of the brain that allows us to predict the consequences of our actions, control our impulses, refine our reasoning and evaluate long- and short-term rewards.
  • These brain changes in adolescence can lead to a more moody or impulsive individual in adulthood.
  • Cannabis use in adolescence can lead to long-term brain changes that affect attention span and memory. Use also increases the risk of developing a psychosis such as schizophrenia.

Preventing damage to the teen brain is important.


  • Tell your teen you don’t approve of binge drinking or using cannabis.
    Your teen actually does care what you think, and teens consistently rate parents as the biggest influence on their lives.
  • Nurture your teen.
    Tell your teen how much you care. Show an interest in his or her life. Make a habit of encouraging and praising what is good about your teen and he or she will respond with more good behaviour.
  • Monitor what your teen is doing.
    Get to know your teen’s friends. Ask where they are going, what they are doing, and who they will be with. Tell him or her what time to be home. Set limits. Help your teen to plan ahead for situations where they may encounter alcohol or cannabis.


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