Ep 279: "What Were You Thinking?" - Inside the Teenage Brain

John Coleman, author of The Psychology of the Teenage Brain, joins us to explain why the biology of the adolescent brain leads to risk taking and emotional ups and downs, and how parents can provide support during this temporary period of development.

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Full Show Notes

The teenage years can feel like an emotional rollercoaster for parents and kids alike. Why does your once sweet child suddenly start acting out and making baffling decisions? What drives them to take risks, rebel against authority figures, and make choices that seem completely irrational?

In this week’s episode of Talking to Teens, we’re getting to the root of teenage psychology and behavior with an expert guide. We’re joined by Dr. John Coleman, a clinical psychologist who has spent decades researching adolescent development. He’s the founder of a research center focused on teens and their families, and is the author of the book The Psychology of the Teenage Brain.

John explains that the ups and downs of the adolescent years can be explained by major changes happening in the biology of the teenage brain. As Dr. Coleman tells us, the teenage brain actually undergoes its biggest developmental shift since infancy, which shapes teen behavior in profound ways parents often don’t realize.

The Teenage Brain: Pruning, Hormones and Development

As John explains, there are two major biological processes unfolding in the adolescent brain: pruning and hormonal changes.

First, he describes the proliferation of gray matter that happens in late childhood. Gray matter contains neuron cells, creating lots of connections in the brain. But in the teen years, the brain eliminates unused neural connections through a process called pruning. This effectively “shrinks” the brain, reorganizing it to become more efficient. However, this leads teens to feel uncertain and confused.

At the same time, John explains that hormone levels are fluctuating more intensely during adolescence than any other life stage. The hormones affecting mood, stress responses, impulsiveness and more vary greatly throughout the day, leaving teens emotionally unstable. This is why an event can make them despair one moment and elated the next.

Understanding the changes happening biologically helps parents empathize with teens during this rocky transition, says John. Even though the period is temporary, it shapes how teens think, process information and regulate emotions in the moment.

Why Teens Act Without Thinking

In our interview, John provides a scientific explanation for why teenagers engage in baffling, risky behavior without considering consequences. As he explains, the brain networks connecting the emotional centers to the prefrontal cortex (the area controlling planning and decision making) are still immature in adolescents. So when intense impulses arise, the thinking part of teens’ brains can’t overcome these urges, leading them to act out without foresight about the outcomes.

Helping Teens Develop Healthy Brains

The good news is there are things we can do to help teens through this period, says John. Having routines, boundaries and open conversations about emotions helps them regulate their moods and behavior. We discuss how parents can model healthy emotional responses for kids, so they can build skills managing feelings that will serve them in adulthood.

John also emphasizes that despite teens’ outward rejection of parents, they still heavily rely on parental support during this challenging developmental window. So staying patiently engaged as a caring guide remains important, even when kids are pulling away to assert their independence.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
John Coleman
John Coleman
John Coleman is a psychologist with a long-standing interest in adolescence. He has had many different roles in his career, including running a therapeutic community for troubled teenagers, acting as Director of a research centre, advising Government as a civil servant, and taking various academic posts. Most recently he was a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Education, University of Oxford (2006-2015). He is currently Visiting Professor at the University of Bedfordshire. His interests include parenting, the digital world, the teenage brain and young people’s health. He has written a number of books on the teenage years, and has an international reputation for his work on adolescence. In 2001 he was awarded the OBE by Queen Elizabeth II for his work on youth.
Ep 279: "What Were You Thinking?" - Inside the Teenage Brain
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