INSIDE OUT -Understanding Teens’ Emotional Brains

Why do I feel this way?

Disney/Pixar has provided a funny, perceptive look inside a student’s head in Inside Out!

It’s funny also that the movie relies on some new findings about how a student’s brain is changing. For parents and youth workers this information is important because it answers questions like:

How do I respond to emotional out bursts?
How do I help students understand themselves?
How can I help my son or daughter make more reasonable choices?
How do I help guide students to emotional maturity?

Here are some important discoveries that all of us can put to good use… at the end I also have a list of resources…

 1. Emotions First Reason Second

Have you ever wondered why, when you were heading into adolescence. that your highs were so high and your lows were so low? I certainly have and now I know why. Researchers guessed that it was because the emotional areas of the brain develop before the higher reasoning center and they were right!

For years Dr. Jay N. Giedd has been looking at teenage brains as they work on simple tasks in MRI machines. Recently he has published many of his key findings in Scientific American. He explains in The Amazing Teen Brain, that there is an imbalance between the growth of the emotional (limbic) region and the executive reasoning (prefrontal cortex) regions of the brain.

Maria Isabel Garcia explains it this way: For the adolescent brain, it appears that the limbic region, charged with emotional responses, is the one that is naturally the most active during the teenage years in experiencing these connections.

What this means is that teens first response may not be rational. They may not understand how they feel. They may not be able to explain their reactions. Both parent and student may be mystified by what just happened!

 2. Speaking Before Thinking.

Looking back, I said some pretty stupid things as a teen. I cringe to recall what I blurted out without thinking! Do you have similar regrets? These too can be blamed on the lag between emotions and thinking. Garcia points out, This is why your teenager is always trigger ready with a response to whatever you ask him or her – whether it is some dense smart aleck phrase or silence, which is as remarkably thick.

In practical terms, what this means is that the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are “fully online, or even more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity.”(Dr. Margarita Holmes)

 3Leaping without Looking

This is the risky behavior that really concerns parents. Dr. Giede explains that risky teen behavior is also driven by an imbalance in brain development. He explains that “A mismatch in the maturation of brain networks leaves adolescents open to risky behavior but also allows for leaps in cognition and adaptability.” Because teens process emotions quickly and intensely, the brain has to play catch up and sometimes this takes place after an action has been taken. Holmes explains why this is. She says:

Brain imaging studies also suggest that the responses of teens to emotionally loaded images and situations are much stronger in comparison to adults and even younger children..

This impulsive behavior can get teens in trouble. They can verbalize emotions before they are fully understood and react sometimes without considering the outcome. Data from several studies also indicate that teenagers have stronger first response than adults so they don’t evaluate the consequences of what they’re doing. Usually this is expressed in more impulsive behavior, so they tend to be more spontaneous and less inhibited than adults.

 The Good News

One of the reasons that I love working with teens is because of their spontaneity. I love the fact that they can jump in with both feet and they are not afraid to feel.

A youth worker told me today that she was at a worship concert with the grade 8 boys. Suddenly one of them jumped to his feet, raised his hands, shut his eyes and sang with all of his heart! His two friends jumped up a second later. She marvelled that they were so moved. She also wondered why she wasn’t. This is the wonderful side of teenage experience!

 A few Take-Aways

  • Teens still need our guidance although they may appear all grown up.
  • They may not think through the consequences of their actions
  • Help them to slow down and process decisions with you.
  • Be the adult. They will say hurtful things they mean in the moment but don’t really believe
  • Expect inconsistency and apply grace with lots of patience.
  • Normality will return. It may seem like a decade but normally the brain balances out.


 Some Resources

WHY Do They Act That Way?
A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen by David Walsh PhD (2004). Published by Free Press, NY, NY.

The Primal Teen
What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids by Barbara Strauch (2003). Published by Doubleday, NY, NY.
Provides information about adolescent sexual and reproductive health to parents, health care providers, educators, and advocates. The Parent’s Sex Ed Center contains tips and resources to help parents communicate effectively with their teens
Provides information and resources to teens using drugs and alcohol and offers support for those who have parents with substance abuse problems. Sponsored by the Federal government
Offers teens information and a quiz to help build healthy relationships. Provides suggestions for how to talk to a friend who is in an abusive relationship and explores options for how to get help and safety planning
Provides prevention education to address bullying and peer aggression
Serves as a clearinghouse for information, resources, and support. Large volume of resources dealing with teen and family issues including state resources

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Ron Powell


Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email