Understanding teenagers

Understanding teenagers

Understanding teenagers The teenage twilight zone

If you feel as though you’re walking on eggshells around your teens, you’re not alone!

While parents struggle to understand their teenagers, teenagers don’t understand themselves. It’s not only surging hormones that create chaos, their brains are undergoing pruning (this means fewer but faster connections) and priming that, in turn, will make them independent, responsible adults, capable of raising the next generation.

What’s going on inside a teenager’s head?

With the invention of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) neuroscientists are discovering how the brain is wired and how it works – particularly in teenagers. This has led to some remarkable discoveries. For example, they’ve found that the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex (just behind the forehead), associated with planning, judgement and taking responsibility for your actions, is only fully functional by the age of 25. The maturing teenager’s brain can misinterpret emotional signals as angry and hostile when these don’t exist. Dopamine-rich areas of the brain that reward behaviour, both good and bad, are flooded with adrenaline, egging teenagers on to look for excitement and
take risks – both good and bad. The pineal gland that produces melatonin, which synchronises sleep rhythms, is slower to kick in, and that’s why teenagers prefer to prowl late into the night – then struggle to get up the next morning!



It’s not only the teenager’s brain that’s under construction, hormones from their reproductive systems are sending messages to the pituitary gland – a pea-sized gland in the brain. The pituitary gland releases chemicals that will not only mature their sex cells (sperm in boys and ova or eggs in girls), they will, by clever manipulation of the reproductive organs, create favourable pathways for the survival of both sperm and ova.

Boys and testosterone 

Testosterone from the testicles matures sperm, and makes a boy a man – physically and emotionally. Testosterone-like hormones are released by the adrenal glands (found on top of the kidneys), and these adrenal sex hormones
stimulate serotonin and other neurochemicals found in the brain that control mood and excitability. This combination contributes to the moodiness, unpredictability and emotional outbursts associated with teenagers.

Dealing with teenage boys 

Feed them! They get grumpy and irrationally irritable when they’re hungry. Food also entices boys to come home when they’re hungry. It’s a bonus when they bring their friends home too, because it gives you the chance to meet them.

  • Don’t expect teenage boys to sit straight, clean up after themselves or tidy their rooms. Close the door if you don’t want to see the mess.
  • Warn them about the hazards and risks of watching porn, smoking, drinking, and sex. Nobody else will.
  • Boys learn from what they see more than from what they hear, ie the example set by their parents.
  • Teenagers get just as much of a thrill from scoring a goal, acing a maths test, or winning at something they’re good at. Encourage them to focus on their strengths.

Girls and oestrogen 

Although there’s a myriad of hormones that a girl has to learn to live with, oestrogen that’s mostly made by the developing egg in the ovary, dominates her menstrual cycle. Oestrogen also changes a girl into a woman – evidenced when she has her first period. The misconception is that unpleasant pre- and period symptoms are caused by hormones, but the truth is that just before a period, hormone levels are at their lowest. This triggers menstruation
and a new cycle. Symptoms of moodiness, feeling bloated, nausea and painful breasts begin to fade when the hormones for the new cycle are released.


Dealing with teenage girls 

It’s quite normal for mothers and daughters to clash. They’re both experiencing cyclic hormonal highs and lows, and daughters are fighting to become independent.

  • Teenage girls turn to their friends for advice, reassurance and sympathy. They’re learning about relationships and how to trust people outside the comfort zone of the family. Mothers can feel rebuffed and hurt when this happens.
  • Teenage girls need their fathers to teach them about unconditional (not sexual) love – that’s why women marry men who are just like their fathers.

When teenagers are treated like mini adults, they assume this gives them licence to dabble in adult behaviour – sex, smoking, and drinking. When this happens, the reward centres of their brain light up, spurring them on to do it again because it feels good. When parents ask: ‘What were you thinking?’ teenagers can’t give a logical answer, simply because the frontal lobe of their brain wasn’t working at the time.

Teenagers and their friends

Most teens want to be part of the ‘in-crowd’, and separate themselves from their uncool parents. They’re learning about the world with their friends who speak their language: ‘Sup?’, ‘Dah’ and ‘Whateva!’

Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote that teenagers hanker after idealism, and rebel against authority: ‘It’s a time in their lives when difficulties and conflicts are absolutely inevitable.’ Teenagers feel supported by their peers, and when
home life is seriously disruptive they find solace in groups, clicks and gangs.

In Broken Dreams – Wounded Hearts: A parent’s guide to understanding teenage rebellion, Greg Glassford writes: ‘Adolescence is the age of identity when young people begin the adventure of truly discovering who they are and where they “fit in”. In the mind of a teenager, the thought of isolation, of standing alone in opposition to the group, is not only unappealing, but even quite threatening. To the vast majority of young people, group approval means everything. Very few are born leaders, and fewer still have any real desire to go against the crowd on important issues.’

During this extremely sensitive stage parents often walk on eggshells, unsure whether to be direct: ‘When are you going to change those clothes?’, or how to stop themselves from screaming: ‘How can you live in this pigsty you call your room?’

Parents need to understand that despite the defensive front put up by teenagers, they’re extremely sensitive to the realities of this harsh world they’re growing up in. Torey Hayden writes in her book, The Tiger’s Child, ‘I just want to put my hands over my eyes and my fingers in my ears and stop it from getting in. I mean, I already know the world’s bad. I’m not sure I can stand knowing it’s really worse.’

What can parents do?

  • Make your teenager feel wanted and accepted.
  • Give them what they need (love and attention), and not what they want (usually expensive luxuries).
  • Despite their rebelliousness, teenagers need structure and routine to feel secure.
  • Let them make their own decisions – but be there to guide them.
  • Teach them to set realistic goals.
  • Give them age-appropriate responsibilities.
  • Don’t tease them in front of their friends.
  • Don’t always take the initiative – give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

As M Scott Peck writes, ‘That children generally lie, steal and cheat is routinely observable. The fact that sometimes they grow up to become truly honest adults is what seems the more  remarkable. Laziness is more the rule than diligence. The mystery of goodness is even greater than the mystery of evil.’

The plus side to teenagers

  • They have an amazing sense of humour.
  • They’re willing to help – everybody except you!
  • They’re honest.
  • They keep you young and trendy.
  • They’re digitally ahead, and computer and cellphone savvy.
  • They do learn to make better use of their time.
  • After completing school, they become quite likeable, and inevitably turn out to be caring, responsible young adults.


Joni van der Merwe

About Joni van der Merwe

Your Family’s Digital editor. Avid retweeter. When I’m not scrolling Instagram you’ll find me in my garden. Keen on DIY and I don’t believe there’s anything that can’t be fixed with some chalk paint.


Send this to a friend