Understanding the teen brain
There are basically two brains at work in a teenager: the emotional and the rational.
- During the teenage years, the emotional brain develops first; it rules a teen’s thinking and behaviour. The emotional brain gets excited by taking risks and looking for thrilling experiences.
- The brain's frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, develops later. The rational brain (reasoning) is responsible for planning, organizing, controlling impulses and self-awareness.
- The emotional brain drives teens by suggesting that they “do it now." The rational brain tells teens to “stop and think about it” - these thoughts take a back seat.
- A teen often speaks or acts without thinking about the possible outcome or results.
Tips for parents
- Provide guidance, opportunities and environments that support the development of the rational or “thinking” brain. Help your teen to plan ahead for situations (e.g., going on an outing with friends).
- Problem-solve possible situations together. Talk about your concerns.
- When you find yourself in conflict with your teen, remember that emotions direct your teen.
- Stay calm. Don’t engage in a power struggle about how to think and who is right.
- Focus on the important issues of health and safety; help your teen think of the possible results of their actions. Provide opportunities for safe risk taking (e.g., performing in front of an audience, skateboarding or skiing using the proper safety equipment).
Teen brains and substance use
Some teens experiment with alcohol, cannabis or other drugs. This is an example of thrill-seeking behaviour, which is common among teens.
During this time of development, the brain is more sensitive to damage from substance use. Experts say that heavy drinking as a teenager can lead to changes in the brain's frontal cortex, which allows us to:
- Predict the consequences of our actions
- Control our impulses
- Refine our reasoning
- Evaluate long- and short-term rewards
These brain changes as a teenager can lead to a more moody or impulsive adult. Teenage cannabis use can lead to long-term brain changes that affect attention span and memory, and increase the risk of developing a psychosis such as schizophrenia.
Preventing brain damage
As a parent, it is important to help prevent damage to the teen brain.
- Tell your teen you don’t approve of binge drinking or using cannabis.
Your teen actually does care what you think. Teens often 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 your teen what time to be home. Set limits. Help your teen to plan ahead for situations where they might encounter alcohol or cannabis.