Adolescent Research: Teen Brains Wired for Pleasure, Risk-Taking

In recent years, scientific research has provided us with a much greater understanding of the teen brain. We now know that throughout adolescence, the teen brain is maturing and won’t fully reach adult development until the mid-twenties.

For example, teen brain science has found that when teenagers receive rewards, their brains’ pleasure centers respond more actively than those in adults who receive the same rewards. The increased brain response in the teen brain is not due to them valuing the rewards more than adults, but rather that the teenage brain hasn’t finished maturing.

We also know that the portions of the brain responsible for pleasure, self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, assessing risks, and rewards are all under construction for teenagers. Talk about the perfect storm! Now you know why teenagers have long had the reputation for doing some very puzzling, irresponsible (and sometimes risky) things. Blame the brain.

Unfortunately, teen brain science is not particularly comforting to parents and can lead some to shelter their kids and hover over them to prevent them from the potentially life-altering consequences of making poor decisions.

What Can Parents Do?

• Parents should not expect their teenagers to always make adult-like decisions. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t. Remember, the teen brain is under construction!
• Teens must have the opportunity to exercise their brains by making decisions (yes, even poor ones) so that the brain can mature into adulthood.
• Parents who protect their kids from (or do not allow) decision-making only impede the teen’s brain from developing normally.
• Remember each teenager is unique. Parents should use a realistic assessment of what decisions are both age and maturity-appropriate for their child to make and then allow him or her to make these decisions.
• Parents should also keep an eye on the goal of increasing the number and scope of decisions they allow their teenagers to make.
• In this season of the “perfect storm” going on in a teenager’s head, parents should provide consistent encouragement, guidance, coaching, and a measure of safety to their teenagers.

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Jim Liebelt

Jim Liebelt

Jim is Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for HomeWord. Jim has over 35 years of experience as a youth and family ministry specialist, having served over the years as a pastor, author, consultant, mentor, trainer, college instructor, and speaker. Jim’s HomeWord culture blog also appears on Crosswalk.com and Religiontoday.com. Jim and his wife Jenny live in Quincy, MA.

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