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The Teenage Brain: What Parents and Teens Need to Know

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

From around the ages of 12 to 24, adolescents experience an immense amount of growth and maturation. It is a time of stress, change, and upheaval as they navigate relationships at home and school, and with friends and peers. It is also a time that is vibrant with courage and creativity.

As a mom of teenage daughters, I know there are some really great moments and good days, and some days that I would describe as "I need to rewind the clock." We just can’t protect them from everything that is out there; this is a stage that they must live and explore on their own. But there are many ways we can hold space for them, give them information they need so that they can think about the decisions they are making. We can help them to recognize the immense potential they have inside them, and let them know that they have our love, warmth and support—that we’ve got their back.

"Where do I belong?"

Teens want to gently separate from parents and to find their own "tribe." New connections and friendships are made at this stage, as teens are in the midst of trying to find themselves, determine who they are, and find where they fit. Teens surrounded by teens on a consistent basis means increased risk for thrill-seeking, and other risky behaviours. 

Because teens may become isolated from the family unit, this is a crucial time for parents to stay involved in their lives and to find ways to connect at their level. Mindful communication is important in all our relationships but even more important when talking to teens, who need to know that they are always important, that they belong, and that relationships may change but the love stays the same.

Risk and novelty seeking behaviours

During the adolescence years, the brain changes in profound ways; It changes in the way they remember, think, reason, focus, make decisions and relate to others. They are dealing with many changes—hormones, growth spurts, brain changes, and emotional reactions to all of this. At the same time, teens identified as "at-risk" are dealing with mental health issues including severe stress and anxiety, attention disorders and sometimes, dysfunctional families.

At this age, the brain connects from the amygdala—fight, flight, or freeze system—to the front (the pre-frontal cortex), where all thoughtful decisions like "calm down," "be logical," and "think it through" are made. However, teens are heavily influenced by what’s in their immediate surroundings—both good and bad. This makes the brain extremely vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and addiction. The brain wants to feel alive, feel rewarded by a "high," and to try something new and daring. 

The amygdala is great for keeping us alive; it is instinctive, reactionary, impulsive, and emotional. The prefrontal cortex is great for calming us down, helping us make excellent decisions, respond wisely, and consider consequences. This part of the brain doesn't fully develop until the age of 24. Until then, the way a teen reacts, solves problems, or behaves will be influenced largely by the amygdala.

And there is increased activity in the area of the brain that pays particular attention to "what other people think of me." These messages are often misinterpreted, and without the benefit of the brakes on this particular of model of the sports car, the adolescent brain is prone to making reactionary decisions. The teen brain is like a shiny, new sports car with all the bells and whistles, but with faulty brakes.

Check out the research with at-risk teens

Much research has been done on how much the regular practice of mindfulness can help with a teen’s social, emotional, and mental health. For example, mindfulness researcher and teacher Karen Bluth taught a group of at-risk teens, then tested their emotional changes and attitudes with another control class that was given only drug -awareness training:

And this article reports on an overview study that examined 11 studies of mindfulness-based programs that were used with adolescents identified as at-risk for poor future outcomes, such as not graduating from high school, experiencing drugs and/or violence, and living in poverty. The results of all the studies showed that mindfulness as an intervention made a measurable positive difference in these outcomes. Mindfulness programs were offered through the teens’ schools, and their results are available here as a table.

Mindful practice for teens

The deep breathing of a short three-minute mindfulness practice will calm their anxiety, and help them be open to hearing that "inside voice" (intuition) that might suggest an alternate path to take. 

The three-minute breathing space is one of the Mindfulness and Social Emotional Learning tools that are taught in our Mindful Teens workshops, which help teens take time to "see inside" and bring and awareness to what they are feeling. They learn how to activate the part of the brain that can help them make good decisions, and learn to calm themselves.

There is an upside to the novelty seeking brain: it also enables kids to live with courage, creativity, passion, drive, and adventure. We don't want to inhibit this powerful time in our children's lives. We want them to be able to embrace the vitality of life with the mindful awareness that they are living with a "reactive" brain.

To help anxious teens regulate and feel in control of their thoughts and feelings and free them to be thoughtful and caring learners, Mindful Changes offers courses for tens and programs on mindfulness for kids and teens for schools, teachers, and parents.

Try a mindfulness app made especially for teens

Most teenagers will respond to well-made, thoughtful apps. These apps are designed to introduce adolescents to the practice and experience of mindfulness:

  • The Insight Meditation Timer shows all the locations worldwide where people are meditating.

  • Stop, Breathe, and Think opens with a short "interview" where the user selects several words to describe how they are feeling. The app then recommends guided meditations.

  • Smiling Mind encourages mindfulness, and is designed directly for adolescents.

  • Take a Break! provides short guided meditations for stress relief.

Vancouver area mindfulness classes for teens

Our Vancouver-based programs have been developed as a direct result of the many well-researched and reviewed mindfulness-based programs designed and delivered to at-risk teens in several countries around the world.

If you are a parent who is interested in enrolling your teen in a mindfulness class in the Vancouver area, or, you'd like mindfulness classes or workshops for your school or teen program, contact Shahin. To view upcoming community-based mindfulness events, view our mindfulness events pages.


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