Decoding the Teenage Brain


From wearing shorts in winter to procrastinating beyond reason, teenage behavior is puzzling and often infuriating. In this personal essay, one mom tries to crack the mystery of her teen daughter's behavior and offers advice to other parents of adolescents.


The lights in the room are dim, an illustrated cross-section of the brain floats on screen. "Parents of teenagers often act as surrogate frontal lobes," says the speaker, a bald man with wire-rimmed spectacles, pointing to the lateral portion behind the forehead and eye.

He explains that while the amygdala, or primitive brain, is entirely grown, the frontal lobe, which governs higher processing skills such as rational thought, impulse control, and goal setting, is still growing and won't fully gestate until about age 25.

teenage girl mad at momI'd never considered being a frontal lobe part of my job description. Nor, apparently, had the other parents in the packed room at our local library, eager students all, on a quest to learn more about the teenage brain, the topic of today's seminar.

I count on my fingers. In addition to Sophia, my oldest, I have four other children, two preadolescent daughters and two preadolescent sons who will one after the other hit puberty: I'll be acting as an outsourced frontal lobe on the fly, times five, for the next decade.

I came to the lecture because of my growing anxiety over Sophia, now 13. It had become clear to me in recent weeks that parenting a teenager requires a different skill set than parenting a small child. The lecture at the least, I hoped, would help me understand why Sophia had become, in a word, difficult - or in a phrase, a completely different child than the little tutu-wearing girl I used to tuck into pink sheets.


That Was Then

Not long ago, I knew every single one of Sophia's friends; had the same six kids over for tea parties and trick-or-treating. Now, according to her Facebook page, she has 372 friends, only two of whom I recognize among the hundreds of photos Sophia displays on the site. I could spend hours tracking her online activity, but I don't. I have a husband, five children, a career, and a desire to sleep more than three hours a night. Plus, I trust her. Does this make me a bad mother or a crazy one?

The speaker is on slide nine, which shows brain scan results. He explains that if you watch the brains of teenagers while asking them a question such as Would you try to ski down Mount Rushmore?, the switches in their minds would not flick and flash as much as those of an adult being asked the same question. This is because a teenager is thinking, Yeah, I might give it a try, not weighing potential risks, while adults take all the data in and conclude it's not a good idea. 

I boiled this down in my notebook. Did this mean the same teenage boy on skis is the one who will soon be behind the wheel of a car?


This Is Now

The morning after my trip to the library, Sophia came downstairs for school wearing a tank top, short shorts, and Ugg boots. In March. "You can't wear that to school," I said. "Why mom? Why?" she cried. "Because you can't," I said, and she blasted past me, right back upstairs.

Left breathless at the breakfast table, I thought, "What the heck?" I followed her into the girls' bathroom, a room I avoid at all costs; nothing has a cap in there, toothpaste smears the sink, dirty clothes on the floor come so close to the hamper - mere millimeters, really. 

Sophia pulled the skin under her eye to apply eyeliner. "Change your clothes first," I said flatly.

Then I summoned my frontal lobe. "If you wear shorts to school in March you will be cold, and if you wear a top like that every boy at school will be looking down your shirt," I said. The voice of reason. She looked at me as if she was going to spit then slammed the bathroom door, just like in a movie.

She came back downstairs in jeans, texting on her cell phone while breaking off small pieces of a Pop Tart. "Who are you texting?" I asked. "Are they eating breakfast too?" I wonder if my daughter was typing out an S.O.S. PLEASE SAVE ME FROM MY MOTHER, in all caps.

Sophia nearly missed the bus. "Where's your sweatshirt?" I said as she raced out the screen door. I hate her going to school angry, hate going to my office wondering what I did wrong. I can lose a morning rethinking what I should have said, wondering if I was too hard on her, too easy. No lecture can help me with this.

She is, after all, the daughter who not long ago drank from a sippy cup in footy pajamas with a princess pattern, left notes for the fairies in the fireplace, and pranced about in pantyhose putting on fashion shows. Even now, there are times when she'll let me brush her long hair, smooth as seal skin. I yelled out the door after her again: "I love you, Peanut," I said, the nickname I've had for her since I saw her take the shape of a peanut on the ultrasound.

That afternoon she came home, tossed her backpack onto the couch, sat on top of it, and started in. "Can I go to the movies tonight?" she asked. Not only did the movie start at 9:00, but it was a school night. I remind myself she can't think logically yet, her impulse is to want to go, so she simply asks me, not thinking it through. "No, you can't," I said. "Cindy and Lindsey are going," Sophia began. Once again, I become a frontal lobe. "If you go to a late movie on a school night, you will be overtired for school in the morning." I get the eye roll. I head out the front door to greet the next school bus.

"But can I go tonight?" she asks. I take a breath. I would have to go back to my notes. Did the frontal lobe control hearing as well?

That night I called my mother. "You were the same way as a teenager," she said, her voice tired, as if she may still be weary from having raised me. "It's going to get worse before it gets better." It's after 10pm when I hang up. Sophia is sitting with her laptop on the living room floor, working on the ancient civilizations project that was assigned six weeks ago but is due tomorrow. She has seven pages of notes, no report. I could lecture her on the necessity of planning ahead, but I don't. I'm too tired to be the voice of reason. Instead I sit down on the floor, next to this little big girl I love, pencil behind her ear, her long hair sailing down her back, and I hug her, each of us a work in progress.


Marcelle Soviero is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and She lives in Connecticut with her husband and five children.



Also see: Local resources for teens and parents of teens

How to Parent an Oppositional Child