Understanding the teenage brain

Why do teenagers rebel?

Teenagers can push your patience. What is really behind this rebellious streak?

The need for independence, developing a separate identity, testing authority. It’s part of growing up; it’s also linked to developmental changes in the brain that help them become clear thinking adults. Additionally as an added stress- today’s teenagers are exposed to social pressures earlier than in previous generations.

Development of teenage brain

Parents need to remember that it’s not just their hormones. It’s also their brain changing and growing. We used to believe that these teenage behavioural changes were just activated by the rush of hormones, but we now know it’s the brain starting to organise itself. The brain is basically under construction until well into their mid-twenties. Millions upon millions of synaptic connections between neurons in the brain are being constantly broken down, formed and strengthened. This process is termed neuroplasticity. This transition can start to happen anywhere from 9-13 years of age, it really depends on the maturity of the child.

The part of teenage brain that surges first in development is the limbic system; which is that emotional, reactive part of the brain. What we are seeing here is the limbic piece of the puzzle, because they don’t have that prefrontal cortex (executive function) working to dampen or calm those things down. “So, it’s like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum only they have more words to go along with it,” Dr Davis explains.

Neuroplasticity and increased capacity to learn

This is the time where there is so much neuroplasticity; simply put a huge capacity for intellectual and emotional growth. It’s “the last, great neuroplastic era in our lifetimes,” according to Steinberg(1). A study conducted in 2002 shows of a more powerful learning response in the younger brain. The formation of structural changes to synapses in the grey mater of the brain were noted with repeated exposure, forming increasingly durable webs of memory. This study provides a fascinating window into the brain at the very moment of learning. “This is clear signal that the teenage brain is by nature more receptive to learning, says Frances Jensen in her 2015 book The Teenage Brain. Adolescent animals simply “show faster learning curves than adults,” and we retain the capacity to improve even fundamental attributes like our IQ well into our teenage years.”

Reaching your teenagers and parents role

What does this special window of development means in terms of strengths and vulnerabilities? Most research is very new, and this is the first teen generation to have the benefit of this information. Teens and young people are data-driven, after all, and there is a wave of new facts about the adolescent brain. Teens should be empowered by this new knowledge. Given their plasticity, the teen period is a great time to work on building strengths and correcting weaknesses – much easier done than later as an adult. Parents should take an active role in modelling decision making and helping their teens identify their unique skill sets.

The behaviours of a teen are clearly explained by David Elkind, a professor of child development “Whereas younger children don’t see the flaws in their parents, adolescents suddenly see the world more realistically. They construct an ideal of what parents should be, based on their friends’ parents, on media parents. When they compare their own parents to the ideal, they find them wanting. Their parents don’t know how dress, walk, talk; they’re embarrassing”. All the arguments — they’re also the result of the prefrontal cortex at work, Elkind says. As a child evolves into a teenager, the brain becomes able to synthesize information into ideas. Teens want to exercise their new skill — and they tend to practice on their parents. “It may seem that they argue for the sake of arguing. But really, they’re practising their new abilities.”

Knowledge is powerful for us parents. Having more context in understanding brain development when faced with teenage volatility,  can give us more insights as parents . Knowing that a massive brain restructuring is taking place. Sometimes a teenager won’t have the capacity to access higher cortical (more analytical) regions of their brain and emotional centres will dominate. British neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore insists talking to teenagers openly and directly about their brain development can provide useful context for their emotional worlds. This makes sense as after all it is happening in their brain. Giving them a context enable empowerment “to better understand themselves and exert control over their emotional and academic lives”. What is also really important is to give them a place they can share their thoughts and feelings and start to give them more responsibility.

If we have a deeper context in which to understand we are more open to what is really going on for them and thus can strive to be less reactive to over-reactive teenage emotions.

Teach self-regulation

It’s not too late. The prefrontal cortex, which governs executive functions, is still developing and remains highly responsive to the environment and to training during adolescence. It stands to reason that explicitly teaching self-regulation, long-term planning, and empathy might have particular benefits for teenagers”

New Technologies

New technologies are allowing us to gather more knowledge about the adolescent brain as it processes information creating a revolution in understanding of human cognition. Images from fMRI machines, for example, reveal the brain is less like a collection of discrete, specialized modules—one for speech and one for vision, the old model—and more like an integrated network of functions that support each other. Those same images show that cerebral networks undergo dramatic, global maturation well into our 20s.

A major theory of teenage development was confirmed in a 2014 study by Blakemore and two colleagues. They conducted brain images of 33 people plotting growth rates of limbic systems and the pre-fontal cortex of these individuals over time. “The findings were that the limbic system—the brain’s reward system—is mature and firing on all cylinders in teenagers, while the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like self-control, planning, and self-awareness, is still busy developing.”

This mismatch between these two systems in teenage brain development basically translates to an increase in rewarding feelings of taking risks as the limbic system becomes structurally more developed before the prefrontal cortex, which stops you from taking risks.


This emerging circuitry that makes teenagers vulnerable to risky behaviour and mood swings. A study conducted in 2012 by neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg. He found in the presence of peers, risk-taking surged among the teenagers and young adults. This study involved teenagers and adults playing a virtual driving. Risky driving in 13-16 age group increasing three-fold in the presence of peers.

Further studies show the evidence that the limbic system is hyperactive during adolescence(2,3). “It’s not youthful irrationality or a flair for the dramatic at work; teenagers actually experience things like music, drugs, and the thrill of speed more powerfully than adults do”. In his 2014 book Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, Steinberg draws a straight line to peer influence as well, noting that teenage peers “light up the same reward centres that are aroused by drugs, sex, food, and money.”

Where is the research on chiropractic and the teenage brain?

The teenage brain is undergoing huge amounts of neuroplasticity and chiropractic through its effect on the nervous system can be critical in creating a more balanced teenage transition. Chiropractic care during the teenage years can help support a lifetime of healthy habits. There is so much change happening in those brains at that time in their lives. It’s a pivotal time in their lives, where habits are either replaced or carried on into adulthood. We already know chiropractic can lower your cortisol level. A lot of teens are suffering with high levels of stress and cortisol. Therefore, under chiropractic care they may experience lower cortisol levels and lower levels of anxiety.

Another interesting thing is there is a lot of information out there about when the skeleton matures. Many of us assume they are skeletally mature in their teenage years. This is not correct. Let’s investigate the sacrum and the coccyx. It may not even fully mature until we are in our thirties, in terms of being fully fused. So, think about having a child when you are under thirty, and you wonder why you have so much tail-bone pain, or coccyx pain.

Reward centres inside the teenage brain are heightened so they are striving to stimulate and get more information or feedback into those reward centres. Chiropractic can fuel those reward centres in a positive way. There are studies that have shown that all those experiences actually help shape their brain and behaviour. This is also the time where anything they are consistently doing or participating in is being adopted into their behaviour and they will carry that forward into adulthood.(6)

Different approach

The key things we need to keep in mind is that a different approach is needed if we are to help these young lives maintain healthy habits and take them forward into adulthood.

The brain is the last organ in the body to mature, and recent neuroscience has uncovered remarkable facts about brain development. While it has been well known that the infant and childhood brain have a capacity for accelerated learning, it is only recently that we have understood that the brain is also dynamically growing in adolescent and young adulthood.

Recent research in the last decade has now dispelled many myths around the teenage brain. We now know the brain does not reached full maturity at  puberty. Modern science has confirmed the brain is not fully mature until the mid-twenties, and that the teen brain in particular is not simply and adult brain with fewer miles on it.


1) Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg, 2005; 2) K.L. Mills, A.L. Goddings, L.S. Clasen, J.N. Giedd, and S.J. Blakemore, 2014; and 3) N.L. Schramm, R.E. Egli, and D.G. Winder, 2002, via Synapse magazine, courtesy of Wiley-Liss, Inc. .4)https://www.tes.com/news/what-teachers-need-know-about-teenage-brain What teachers need to know about the teenage brain, Jon Severs, 28 November 2018 5) Stephen Merrill, 2019. 6)https://spinalresearch.com.au/chiropractic-teenage-brain/. 7)https://www.webmd.com/parenting/features/teenagers-why-do-they-rebel#1


Posted in

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

fifteen − seven =