The Mysterious Teenage Brain

Recent research highlighted in the Wall Street Journal sheds light on some reasons for the roller-coaster ride of adolescence–and it’s all about the brain.

On one hand, neuroscientists point out that the teenage brain is uniquely tuned to chemical highs and lows, making it especially vulnerable to stress, addictions and experimenting with dangerous behaviors. Similarly, a brain-image study at UCLA revealed a region of the teenage brain that overreacts to rewards and unexpected stimuli. This may explain why teens seek experiences they find rewarding even though they might be potentially harmful.

However, adolescents also perceive risk and uncertainty differently than adults do, according to neuroscience researchers at New York University. Surprisingly, teenagers try to avoid risks more than adults, although teens are more likely to make a choice before fully investigating possible consequences.

Stress … danger … overreactions … risk … uncertainty. It’s all part of the great mystery of a teenager. Many fathers who have teenagers can actually view these research findings as good news. It’s somewhat comforting to know there’s a good explanation for the way our teens are acting, and that we aren’t alone in our struggles to understand our children and get along. With teens, this is pretty close to normal.

All dads need to be consistent—predictable in our moods and habits. At the same time, we need to adjust our behavior to the ever-changing demands that come with life-long fathering. There is probably no time when this is more relevant than our kids’ teen years. Maintaining a strong connection with our teens requires a commitment to learn, grow and adapt to whatever challenges they may bring our way. If your teenager is causing you grief, the chances are good that you both need to make some changes. How can you adjust to meet your child partway?


  • Talk with your child’s mother about adjustments you need to make as your child grows and matures, like changing the way you show affection or scheduling more time together.
  • Go to the library (or go online) and read up on the developmental needs of each of your children—whether they are teens or toddlers. Here is one option.
  • Make sure your teens (and all your children) have sound, age-appropriate information on the physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences associated with risky behaviors like drugs and alcohol, premarital sex, gambling, etc.
  • Spend some time just listening to your teen, with patience and respect, no matter how wild her ideas or questions may be.
  • Help your child find positive books, videos and other media on topics that interest him or her.

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There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.