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I have two sons, who, thankfully, are no longer teenagers. But I feel a certain post-traumatic stress as I recall some of my kids’ reactions back then to events that appeared to be not such a big deal. Teens then and teens now tend to over-react. They are emotional and quick to escalate the importance of events. Now we know why. Teen brains – especially teen boys’ brains – predispose kids to act badly.

A recent review of research into risky behavior among teenage boys established the neurological basis for three annoying reactions adolescents are liable to.

  1. Teen boys show greater activation of the emotional centers of the brain when in a threatening situation than do younger children or adults. Even when the boys in one study were warned of an upcoming emotional event and were told to not react to it, their brain scans showed a high level of emotional arousal. Teen boys are more emotional than everyone else.
  2. Teen boys are pretty much unimpressed by threats of punishment for bad behavior when those are countered by the possibility of large gains from the same behavior. For example, boys who were threatened with sanctions for gambling gambled even so if they believed the odds were in their favor. Punishment doesn’t deter a male teen’s inclination to have fun!
  3. Teen boys are less able to recognize dangerous situations because a molecule necessary for developing judgment of risk is less active in adolescent males than in other people. Teens’ brain chemistry is different from adults’ in ways that increase their daring behavior.

Keep in mind that these studies examined only boys’ brain activity and chemistry, because boys tend to land in trouble more frequently than girls. But parents of girls recognize that their daughters also can be highly emotional, take what seem to be unreasonable risks, and make poor decisions. While it’s clear that there is a biological basis for teen boys’ behavior, it might well be that the same basis underlies teen girls’ behavior too.

So what is the take-away? If this is how teens’ brains work, is there nothing you can do? Well, here are some suggestions.

  1. Support your teen in learning how to regain control when his emotions get out of hand. Practicing yoga, tai chi, or martial arts can help a teen develop self-awareness. Learning techniques for self-calming (like taking deep breaths, counting to 10, and so on) can also be helpful.
  2. Reduce unnecessary stresses in your teen’s life. Limit extracurricular activities that overload your teen’s schedule and contribute to hurry and anxiety. Avoid picking fights with your teen and being too demanding and restrictive.
  3. Encourage your teen to live a healthy life. Brains run on chemistry and good nutrition is essential for good chemistry. Adequate sleep is necessary for efficient brain function. Help your teen to get all he needs to keep his brain working well.

Keep the lines of communication open by being a supportive listener. This is the way to have input into teens’ decision-making. If you are insistent, directive, and disrespectful your teen will not want to talk things over with you.

Teens eventually grow into adults and develop adult brains that function sensibly under stress and in danger. The trick is to get through this time with body and heart safe and your relationship together intact. Knowing that there are biological reasons for your teen’s erratic actions helps you to take the long view.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at