The Teenage Brain and Behavior


When my daughter turned 13, seemingly overnight, she turned into someone I did not know. My loving and affectionate daughter turned into an angst ridden teenager; defiant, argumentative, all knowing, screaming and yelling and in the next instant sobbing and an emotional mess. Many times she stood before me and I was asking myself who is this person? Who kidnapped my daughter and put this person in her place?

Life holds many mysteries, and the teen years seem to be on this list, having baffled parents for centuries and in every culture. This time period of our lives when hormones are raging and we are trying to find our identity and place in the world, leave most parents bewildered and speechless, including me. For adoptive parents this time period can seem even more daunting, as adoptive children struggle with who they are and their biological roots.

In an article published in National Geographic (October 2011), The Teenage Brain and the New Science to Understand It has given us new ways of understanding teenage behavior. To summate, it was reported that teen brains are still developing through the teen years, reorganizing and perfecting the thought process. We once thought the brain had completed developing at around the age of 6, but we were wrong. Teen’s brains continue to reorganize, create new pathways and reorganize well into the mid 20’s. So while this does not help to deal with the teen’s behavior, it gives us an answer to their sometime exasperating behaviors. When you are asking yourself, “What was he/she thinking?” Remember, teens really aren’t fully capable of thinking, or processing, let’s say, before acting. This confirms my belief, that while the law considers an 18 year old an adult, they are far from it, intellectually or emotionally.

Additionally, the article offered an explanation for teens’ risk taking behaviors (landing many of them at the wrong end of the law and/or constantly having their car privileges revoked). Basically, unlike fully brain developed adults, teens value the reward of risky behavior more than they fear the resulting consequences if they don’t succeed. Many times the reward is the acceptance or approval of peers, highly important to teens. The value of the reward far outweighs the possible consequences, especially if the reward includes peer acceptance.

The article also spoke of evolutionary rooted behaviors as they related to survival, as well as explanations of how the brain works and continues to develop throughout the teen years. What I took away from the article was that there is a biologic reason why teens behave in ways that frustrate us as parents. It is universal and evident in every culture. Most importantly, while you think your teen is not listening, they are! So never stop providing your help and advice. Your teen knows you can offer a wealth of good advice and knows you were a teen once too, even if they won’t admit it. Remember your teen is trying to become independent and trying to figure out who they are. Remember this even when they are standing in front of you displaying behavior that in no way, shape or form appears human.

Adoptive teens may struggle with identity and even more so during teenage years. Keep the communication door open. Provide as much information as possible about who birth parents are and why they were given up for adoption. Keep the information you provide positive and don’t put a negative spin on what you do know. If little is known about their biological roots, be willing to assist them and support them in finding this information. Don’t push the issue, but do let your child know you are willing to listen and to help them when they are ready.

Most importantly, no matter how exasperating your teen’s behavior is, never give up on them and parent them with a gentle, steady hand while allowing their independence to emerge. Encourage your child to solve their own problems but let them know you are there to help if needed. Lastly, the next time your teen confounds you, remember this is part of their development and a path on their journey to adulthood, and it won’t last forever…..just a few years.

Photo Credit: martinak15

For more information about MLJ Adoptions’ international adoption programs, please click here.

Sonja Brown works as the International Program Director for MLJ Adoptionsā€™ programs in Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Samoa. Sonja is also proud to work directly with our Individualized Country Program families who are adopting from countries where no adoption service providers currently operate.