Navigating the Teen Brain in the 21st Century

If you are currently the parent of a teenager, then you were once a teenager yourself. However, even if it has not been very long since your teenage years, it can be difficult to remember what, exactly, what this once-in-a-lifetime experience is actually like. The teenage years represent a unique transition between childhood and adulthood, and it can be difficult to know to interact with—and more importantly, empathize with—your teenager in a productive way.

Due to various key developments in the world of psychology, it is now possible for us to learn more about the teenage brain than ever before. Studies are actively being conducted around the world and, as new information continues to come to light, psychologists everywhere are changing their general approach to treatment.

Though you don’t need to be a brain surgeon in order to be a good parent, understanding the teenage brain is still very important. The more you can learn about how your teen thinks, the easier it will be to understand their developing worldviews and, when necessary, connect them with the mental health services they need.

In this article, we will discuss how teen psychology has changed in the modern era. We will also discuss a few of the ways that parents can help their teens navigate the complex world of their “new” brain. Though your teen no longer has the innocent and undeveloped brain of their childhood, they do not yet have a brain that is structurally identical to your own. Because there is no clear line for when childhood ends and adulthood begins, this time of transitioning can sometimes be quite complicated.

Changes in Research Methods

In the past, most psychological research was done from an analyst’s perspective—individuals would speak with a trained psychologist for extended periods of time and then the psychologist would then attempt to draw general conclusions. However, new technologies have made it much easier for experts to actually see what occurs in the brain and how it is connected to an individual’s behaviors.

Using special brain scans, researchers are beginning to discover which components of the brain are most active in teenagers and—just as importantly—are also discovering which ones lay (relatively) dormant until they reach adulthood. This makes it much easier to predict an individual’s behaviors, explain their reactions, and generally promote their mental well-being.

Additionally, there has been a considerable amount of research regarding the physical brain itself. At the University of Delaware, for example, scientists have been looking at the thickness of brain tissues. According to biomedical engineer Curtis Johnson, “Ultimately our goal is to have these measures for understanding how the brain develops and also how the brain matures.” Researchers are also beginning to emphasize that no component of the brain exists in a vacuum—naturally, complex brain activity will require complex solutions.

Overcoming Troubles with School

Over the past few decades, the discipline of school psychology has been revolutionized. School is one of the primary concerns of teen psychologists due to its intensive nature, need for active mental performance, and ongoing social interactions.

Some academics, such as Sara Enos Watamura at the University of Denver, have been exploring why some teenagers take risks and even neglect their schoolwork. Recently, she stated, “…they’re testing their limits, they’re doing things for the first time… That’s hard work, they need a safe space to try out risks.”

These words are consistent with the general movement away from the rigid academic structures of the past and towards a system that is more aligned with the teenage brain. School districts across the world have begun to empathize things such as individual learning styles, experimentation, and patience with development. Older points of emphasis—such as standardized test scores—may be important to school districts and other parties, but are not particularly compatible with what we now know about the brain.

Identifying Psychiatric Disorders

In the wake of all of this research and the ongoing push for education reform, there has also been a general emphasis on identifying teen psych disorders as early as possible. In fact, it is estimated that roughly one in five teenagers have at least one diagnosable mental health condition. However, only 4 percent of teenagers are actively receiving the mental health treatment they need.

While most mental health disorders can affect individuals of all ages, there are quite a few types of disorders that—statistically speaking—are more common among teenagers.

  • Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and various others
  • Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder
  • Depression, Anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder

Though middle-aged adults commit suicide more often than teens, the teenage years represent the most noticeable rise in suicide rates (this is partially because suicide among young children is very uncommon). Additionally, teen suicide rates have increased by about 40 percent since 2010. This is largely contributed to factors such as general “global anxiety”, the effects of social media, the glorification of suicide, and varying other factors. As you might expect, these mental health disorders have been an ongoing focus of teen-specific research.

Ways that Parents can help their Teens

Overall, the conclusions of many of these studies have been largely consistent: the teenage brain is much more complicated than we initially assumed, teens process their world much differently than adults, mental health disorders can create academic issues for bright students, and intervening early can be incredibly beneficial.

If you are currently the parent of a teenager—especially one who is likely experiencing one or more mental health issues—it can be difficult to know where your next step should be. In order to help your teen navigate these years and the complex emotions that come with them, consider the following actions:

  • Start a conversation with your teen about drug abuse. Substance abuse has an incredibly strong correlation with other mental health disorders—because these difficult topics will inevitably emerge, it’s better if you attempt to control the dialogue.
  • Work to deconstruct mental health stigmas. Many teens don’t get the help they need because they are embarrassed or ashamed to tell people about their problems. The easier you can make it for your teen to approach you, the more likely you will prevent major issues from compounding.
  • Take advantage of school resources. Your teen’s school likely has plenty of teen-specific mental health resources that are available for free. The school may also be able to help develop a program that is conducive to your teen’s specific learning style. If their school does not provide these resources, there are plenty available online (though use caution).
  • Know when it’s time to get help. As we have suggested throughout this article, there are more mental health resources available than ever before. Between youth residential treatment (like Polaris Teen Center), group therapy, seeking professional help will make an impact that will last a lifetime.

We certainly know much more about the teenage brain than we did in years past. However, in order for this newfound information to ever be put to good use, it will be crucial for parents to be proactive.


Since the dawn of time, the teenage brain has long been a mystery. However, while it still remains mysterious in many ways, the world of teen psychology has taken some major leaps this decade. As these research efforts continue and our understanding of the brain expands, our society will be one step closer to helping all teens live their best life.

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