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Book Review of "The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Young Adults"

Sunday, March 15, 2015  
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By: Frances E. Jensen

Reviewed by Jacqueline Westerfield, Head of School, Grandview Preparatory School, Boca Raton, FL

It often seems that everything old is new again. Theories, methodologies, and strategies abound when it comes to raising and educating successful young people. It isn’t often that a new book presents significantly useful data to add to an already expansive library of information, but The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Young Adults, by Frances E. Jensen, MD, does just that. The author is a neuroscientist and mother of two sons. Her perspective is personal, and the data undeniable, regarding both the strengths and vulnerabilities of the adolescent mind.           

For adults, the key takeaways from this book involve two primary concepts. First, we have a duty to place this conversation at the forefront of educational dialogue. Second, the young people themselves need to see and understand this research. The good news about the data is that teenagers are high-powered learning machines. The bad news about the data is that their developing brains are extremely vulnerable to learning the wrong things. Therefore, with our fully-formed brains, we adults must provide frameworks to help our youth maximize learning potential and protect against those things that interfere with healthy brain growth. 

We now have powerful data showing exactly what the developing mind should and should not be doing. Without getting too deep in the science, Jensen’s book illustrates these facts: 

  1. Significant new research has developed in the last decade regarding the adolescent brain. Contrary to previous assumptions, children’s brains continue to be shaped by their environment, physiologically, well past their mid-twenties (pg. 7).
  2. The National Institutes of Health found that the teen brain is only 80 percent developed. The brain develops from back to front, with the prefrontal cortex (the part that houses executive function) as the last to form (pg. 37). This means teens are physically - not just behaviorally - prone to high risk behaviors (pg. 104).
  3. The teen brain is hardwired to learn quickly, much faster than the adult brain. This sponge-like capability results from the physical phenomenon of excitation, where the pathways of cells and their synapses activate repeatedly, thus strengthening. Jensen explains, “The more a piece of information is repeated or relearned, the stronger the neurons become, and the connection becomes like a well-worn path through the woods.” The brain molds itself based on this cycle (pg. 71).
  4. Sleep is essential and teenagers are on a different clock. Primarily because the teen brain is such a powerful learning machine, more sleep is required at this age - approximately 9.5 hours per night. Sleep is actually a key part of the learning process for teens because that is when the brain solidifies the learning that took place during the day (pg. 89).
  5. Regarding addiction, Dr, Jensen states that addiction is actually a form of learning, and therefore, young people are particularly at risk for developing addictions at this age. The data is clear that the young brain exposed to addictive substances will rapidly learn to crave more. The adult brain, when first exposed, does not react the same way. The use of marijuana is now outpacing alcohol as a public health problem in teens (pg. 142). The chemical THC in marijuana is much more concentrated and much more dangerous than that found in the marijuana of previous decades. Beyond the addictive risks, the research shows that THC at these levels is particularly detrimental to cognitive abilities (pg. 146) and can activate mental illness that would not otherwise emerge (pg. 152, 154). Similarly, the relatively new phenomenon of prescribing painkillers for sports injuries has shown a rise in addictions for students who were not previously using other substances.
  6. The teenage brain is not well equipped to multi-task (pg. 43) and is prone to higher levels of stress (due to underdeveloped prefrontal cortex). In some ways, technology is a drug because it uses the same brain circuits as those activated by chemicals that induce addictions (pg. 206, 216).

So what are we to do with these facts? The call to adults everywhere is help young people understand the strengths and weaknesses of their developing brains. We know teenagers can grasp facts at this age since they are programmed to learn quickly at this time in their lives. However, they are neurologically predisposed to struggle with executive function. Here are five key pieces of advice for parents and educators to best guide our teens:

  1. Expose and encourage students to truly engage in learning as much as they can during this window of intense learning power. As teens become more aware that they have the power to actually create their brain, they will be more likely to use it wisely. To do this best, we must make school relevant and responsive, aligning with current brain-based strategies. Schools should also consider later start times to better support teen sleep patterns and needs. Also, schools should consider some gender-based curricula to account for the differing developmental needs of boys and girls (pg. 233-237).
  2. Provide structure for decision-making. Emphasizing steps, modeling the thinking process, and encouraging a one-thing-at-a-time approach will help clear a path for long term benefits. As much as teenagers believe they can watch TV, listen to music, and SnapChat while doing homework, the data shows that they cannot (pg. 218). Force them to develop a habit of list-making. Visual lists are a wonderful tool to help strengthen executive function (pg. 219).
  3. Repetition. The delayed development of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents requires adults to provide constant repetition so teens can remember important information. This applies both to life lessons and educational material. “Frequency and 'recency' are the key words here. The more frequently and the more recently teens learn something, and then recall it, the more entrenched the knowledge will become" (pg. 73)
  4. Provide data and talk openly about high-risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2010 stating that schools, pediatricians, and the media needed to do a better job of making the public aware of the unique vulnerabilities of this age group (pg. 138). In the past, adults have had to preach anti-risk taking messages to teenagers with a because I said so approach, even though many adults often drink alcohol. To the teenage mind, this preaching seems hypocritical and illogical, particularly when the young person is over 18 and classified as an adult in the eyes of the law. Armed with the new research, adults can now clearly explain why alcohol and other substances are particularly damaging to the young brain and its future potential.
  5. Understand sleep patterns, get outside, and set limits - with everything. Provide environments for success. Encourage needed sleep by taking the TV, computer, and the mobile phone out of the bedroom. This helps to monitor teen’s attempted multitasking (pg. 100). Also, don’t be afraid to be the bad guy when it comes to setting curfews and calling other parents to check on social plans. Finally, provide opportunities for teens to be in nature; exposure to nature has many benefits such as reducing stress and depression (pg. 92).

The specific data and advice given in Frances E. Jensen’s The Teenage Brain is extremely useful to those of us past our mid-twenties, with our fully-formed prefrontal cortices. As educators, we have a duty to help our teens understand both the strengths and vulnerabilities of their young minds. This book is a great tool in that regard. 

Jackie Westerfield is the head of Grandview Preparatory School in Boca Raton, FL. She can be reached at or on her Twitter account.  


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