Scientists used to think you couldn’t do much to change your brain. But now it’s widely known that what you eat, think, and do at any age can affect how well your brain performs today, tomorrow, and 50 years from now. And one of the most exciting times for the brain is the teen years. “What happens in adolescence can have a lifelong impact on how your child’s brain works,” says neuroscientist Jill Goldstein, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
But that can be for the better and for the worse: The teen brain is so fired up and ready to absorb everything that it’s equal-opportunity turf for positives like great teachers and creative thinking and negatives like concussions and stress. What the brain meets during this critical period can affect learning, mood, and even IQ. Discover how to keep your children’s brains strong by understanding what they’re vulnerable to—then help them grow resilient minds for life.
Concussions can happen in most male and female sports, not just football, says Tracey Covassin, Ph.D., director of the sport concussion laboratory at Michigan State University. Helmets are critical for heavy- sports, but they aren’t the only answer. The smartest way to minimize long-term effects: Get your child checked out by a doctor as soon as possible after an incident—and keep her from playing until then.
Brain Saver: If you think your child has suffered a concussion, take her to a sports medicine specialist or a general practitioner who’s familiar with concussions, says Covassin. Sounds simple, but researchers found that nearly 40 percent of kids who came into one Texas hospital with concussions said they had returned to play that same day (and didn’t get clearance from a medical professional first), which dramatically raises the risk of brain injury.
Alternatively, you could head to an urgent care clinic with a sports medicine focus if there’s one in your area. Know that the ER might not be your best bet: One study found that 60 percent of kids who showed up in one New Jersey hospital’s emergency room with signs of concussion weren’t diagnosed with one. But if an ER is the only option for you, be sure to explicitly state when you walk in that you think your child may have a concussion.
While teens’ rational brain regions are somewhat on standby, their emotional centers are rolling. When someone writes your daughter a nasty text, it may feel like an international incident to her. “In her brain, it’s the same reaction yours would have when an international incident really does happen,” says Frances E. Jensen, M.D., chair of the neurology department at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Teenage Brain. So a giant stressful event, like a serious accident or illness or the death of a loved one, has a bigger effect on a teenager than it would on an adult. Major stresses can also make some kids more likely to develop depression and PTSD.
Brain Saver: Offer perspective and help kids learn resilience, says Dr. Jensen. Teach them to take control of their lives by setting small goals, like starting a new summer job or writing for the school newspaper, and working toward those things a step at a time. Also, encourage them to take their concerns to a person who’s a good listener instead of putting those thoughts out to their friends in text messages or posting on social media. Just be aware that the listener they choose might not be you!
The super-active brains of teens are what make them sponges for learning. “The brain responds quickly to a new task,” says Dr. Jensen. “But it responds just as fast to things like substance abuse.” Teens can get addicted harder, stronger, and longer, she says, with an amount of a substance that might not affect an adult, and that can change their brains for good.
Alcohol can affect the size of two regions of the brain (the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus), leaving learning, memory, attention, and organizational functions compromised. And habitual marijuana use can leave them with impairments in learning and impulse control, says Dr. Jensen. Even cigarettes can do damage: After just a few smokes, teens’ brains create new nicotine receptors—additions that make quitting that much harder.
Brain Saver: Since teens don’t automatically know how to say, “No, thanks,” you need to give them a “frontal lobe assist.” “Rehearse potential risky situations they could encounter,” says Dr. Jensen. You might ask, “What would you do if a person came up to you and invited you to do something you shouldn’t be doing? Let’s talk about some answers you can have ready." In other words, help kids prep responses, since they likely won't intuitively know how to react because they don’t have the wiring yet.
Shut-eye is critical for learning, and it’s also imperative for thinking better and faster. Symptoms we attribute to being a teenager, like mood swings, may arise as much from lack of sleep at this time of life as from anything else, says Mary A. Carskadon, Ph.D., director of chronobiology and sleep research at Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island: “It’s not just being a teenager—being a sleep-deprived teenager makes you unhappy and irritable.”
The trouble isn’t only that teens won’t go to bed; it’s that their bodies don’t want them to sleep even if the clock says it’s time to pack it in. Teens’ circadian rhythms shift so they’re naturally more awake at night. But what doesn’t shift is the need for more sleep than adults (teens require about nine hours a night).
Brain Saver: Turn off all devices at least an hour before bedtime so the sleep hormone melatonin can begin to flood their bodies (light interferes with melatonin production). Also, keep devices and kids separate during sleeping hours. “Have everyone put their phones to bed somewhere other than their rooms,” says Larry Rosen, Ph.D., author of The Distracted Mind.
If you’re worried your teen will go get his or her phone in the middle of the night, charge it in your room. And let teens sleep in on weekends, but not for more than an hour or two. Sleeping in for hours and hours on the weekend is equal to flying across the country every week, says Carskadon. Try to keep your family on a schedule.