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Inside the Mind of a Teenager – What on earth is happening?

As the parent of a teenager, I am sure that you can identify with some of the following questions:

  • What happened to my once sweet and predictable 5-year old that has now turned into a challenging and unpredictable teenager?

  • How do I reach and reconnect with them?

  • Is their behavior normal?

  • Am I the only parent who is struggling?

  • Is my child acting out because I am a bad parent?

  • Why do they hang out with those friends? It is so unlike them!

Having a teenager in this century is vastly different from any previous generation. The landscape has changed and it is uncharted territory for most 21st century parents. It is extremely stressful and daunting and it is wrapped in a whole lot of uncertainty and unpredictability.

The aim of this article is to give parents insight into the mind / brain of a teenager, in order to develop a deep, compassionate understanding of what is happening for them on a biological

level. The intention is not to find excuses for teenagers to act out, be rude, irresponsible or inappropriate, but it is meant to shed some light on the drastic changes they experience.


In the past 10-15 years, scientist and academics have made giant leaps in their understanding of the human brain. These findings have also shed some light on the mystical brain of the teenager. Many of the pre-conceived ideas about the brain has been contradicted by the new findings and new insights into the wiring of the brain has been revolutionary. We now know that the brain can grow new cells, it changes constantly and we have the ability to change our thoughts. Behaviour is a physical manifestation of the “stuff” that starts in the brain and it is driven by thoughts and emotions. It is almost like the script of a play and the behaviour is the acting part of the play.

How does it work?

We experience the world through our senses. Information streams in through our senses and it passes up the spinal cord towards the brain. The brain interprets this information and gives it meaning and the meaning will determine our behavior.

The cerebral cortex of the brain is divided into 2 different groups of cells. The outer layers are used for thinking and the inner layers are used for feeling. Incoming information, is first filtered through the feeling part of the brain before it is passed on to the thinking brain. One of the main structures of the emotional brain is the amygdala and is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Its job is to keep us safe. The amygdala evaluates the incoming information and validates it against the question: Am I safe?

When enough incoming information feels familiar, the message that the amygdala communicates to the rest of the brain and body is: “I am safe”. When you feel safe and calm, you are able to engage the thinking brain appropriately.

On the contrary, when the information that enters the brain is unfamiliar, the amygdala is on high alert and sends a distress message to the brain and body. It triggers the deposit of adrenaline into the bloodstream to prepare us for fight-or-flight.

This process has a very important implication: Biologically, humans are feeling creatures who think and not thinking creatures who feel. This has a significant impact on the way that we exist in the world.

Biology underpins everything our teenagers are feeling, thinking and experiencing:

The first major change in puberty is the physical growth spurt during which their entire body changes. Teenagers have to learn how to deal with their new bodies as well as with an array of new emotions. These physical changes are triggered by the flood of different hormones. It also causes drastic mood swings, which in turn, influence what they think, feel and how they act. The amygdala grows testosterone receptors that stimulates aggression. Suddenly, they experience a new part of themselves that they did not even know existed. Due to the biological nature of their mood swings, they can’t always regulate their mood swings and it makes them feel out of control. Their amygdala is on high alert, because everything is unfamiliar!

Their sleep patterns change and they seem to become “nocturnal”. They find it hard to get out of bed in the mornings. Somehow, our one obligation to our species as a biological being, is reproduction. According to scientists, their nocturnal activities has to do with this aspect of their survival.

Peer acceptance becomes extremely important to them and peer pressure plays a fundamental role in their decision making and behaviour. As part of their survival mindset, they realise that strength is found in numbers and they start to pull away from their parents and migrate towards their peers.

Another consequence of their survival mindset is their ego-centric behaviour. Everything is about “them”…

The “pleasure center” of their brain, (the nucleus accumbens), is highly active and drives their very strong desire for immediate gratification as well as their need for excitement and exhilarating pleasure. They engage in high-risk activities during which they start to experiment with novelties and open themselves up for an array of potentially bad choices.

Once again, all of this feels unfamiliar – The amygdala is still on high alert! Stuff that they used to know all too well before, isn’t there anymore and interests that they used to have, disappear and change. Their friends change and they change their circle of friends.

On top of everything else that is happening, there is a natural pruning process that takes place in the teenage brain. This process starts at the back of the brain and moves towards the front. The last part of the brain that will undergo this refining process is the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is involved in reasoning, logic, analytical thinking and impulse control. It is the part of our brain that enables us to plan ahead and gives us the ability to understand consequences and appropriateness of behaviour. 50 % of the synaptic connections inside the teenage brain will be pruned away. They literally lose half their minds! Keep in mind - The amygdala is still on high alert, because like the rest of it, all of this feels unfamiliar!


In a nutshell: Most of the behavioural changes that we see in teenagers, are driven by what they think and what they feel. It is clear that they do not always have immediate control over what they think, feel and do, because of the biology that is running in the background.

The aim of this article was to help parents understand the internal, biological processes that are happening in the brain of the teenager during their journey into adulthood. Tips and tools on how to deal with these issues, are discussed in my next article on “How to survive my teenager”.

As parents, we realise that we desperately need adequate tools in order to guide our teenagers through this overwhelming process. We need to keep them alive until 25!

Contact me now for more in depth information on the developing mind of the teenager as well as tips and tools for parents of teens.

Let’s arrange a free 30-minute conversation about what is happening for you and your teenager. Contact me today!

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