What’s Going on Inside the Teen Brain?

It's a time of rapid brain development—and risk. Here's why we need to give teens the space—and the safety—to grow.

Photocreo Bednarek/Adobe Stock

To get a copy of this graphic suitable for a poster, click here. Understanding the Teen Brain

Some 36 million people in the US are between 12 and 24 years of age—a vital period of development many neuroscientists call the age of the adolescent brain, or the teenage brain. We’ve recently seen a profusion of books (see below) pointing out that many of us—and our institutions—have misapprehended the teenage brain and the human beings carrying one around. One high school board member put it to me that “Teenagers are idiots. They need to be protected from themselves.” Idiots? Ouch!

What’s really going on, according to brain scientists, is a vitally important period of heightened receptivity (so one seeks out novel experiences), risk taking (to stretch limits), social sensitivity (to form bonds and alliances), and high plasticity (allowing for rapid skills development), to name a few. These features are necessary for a next generation to pave new pathways for the future. But they also make teenagehood a high-wire act that carries big risks. To balance these positives and negatives, the authors of the books say, we need to give teens lots of room, while paying enough attention to helping…