I speak a lot about the science of teens; What research says about why teens behave the way they do. Here my top five brain notes that all parents should know…and keep in mind with a teen in the home.

science of teens, science of teenagers, adolescence science

1. Moods:

In research done by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson, adolescents were given beepers to record their moods and activities for a week. The subjects were paged at random times and asked to write down how they were feeling and what they were doing. This, no surprise here, showed moods fluctuating rapidly from negative to positive several times each day, especially for teen girls.

2. Boy Outlook vs Girl Outlook:

In her book The Female Brain, Brizendine points to major girl boy differences as a result of hormones. Here are the documented differences: (If you are like me, it was nice to see that some of the differences below are actually common, and not just with teens I work with).

  • Girls tend to seek intimacy in their relationships and love chatting with peers. They avoid conflict at all costs. However, boys tend towards competition.
  • Interestingly, by the time boys reach kindergarten, they often play exclusively with each other and form dominance hierarchies based on who is the most athletic. Girls’ games, like house and hopscotch, tend to be more cooperative. Brizendine says these differences are “pivotal brain difference between males and females” and “during the teen years the flood of estrogen in girls’ brains will activate oxytocinflirting and socializing.”

3. TV and Reality

Many teens spend their time daydreaming about fantasies based on what they see on TV and movies (I certainly did…perhaps still do to some extent). According to the study: “Occupational portrayals on television: Children’s role schemata, career aspirations, and perceptions of reality,” researchers found that children often cannot distinguish between real life and TV fantasies. This is one of the reasons why many teens develop infatuations with celebrities and are addicted to shows that they think should portray real life.

4. Processing Stress

According to Margot Sunderland, the brain’s stress response system needs to be developed in the amygdala. People who have not established stress response systems in their brains, can suffer all kinds of problems: Depression, persistent states of anxiety, phobias and obsessions, physical symptoms and ailments, being cut off emotionally, lethargy, lack of excitement and lack of spontaneity. Many teens are not taught how to respond to stress, and therefore are actually lacking the proper brain pathways to deal with anxiety in healthy ways. When teens feel overwhelmed, it is often because their brain can literally not handle the inputs.

5. Social Rejection Is Painful

Two researchers at UCLA actually discovered that social rejection actually registers as bodily injury or pain in the brain! There might not be that big of a difference between a punch and a catcall. This helps adults understand why teens can be so upset and swept up by what happens with their peers.

I will continue to post more science of teen explanations and behaviors because I think it helps us understand why teens and parents get into certain cycles.


Brizendine, Louann. The Female Brain. New York: Morgan Road, 2006. Print.

Sunderland, Margot. Science of Parenting: Practical Guidance on Sleep, Crying, Play, and Building Emotional Well-being for Life. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2006.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Reed Larson. Being Adolescent: Conflict and Growth in the Teenage Years. New York: Basic, 1984. Print.

Fitch, Marguerite. “Occupational portrayals on television: Children’s role schemata, career aspirations, and perceptions of reality.” (1995). 

Naomi Eisenberger and Matt Lieberman, “Why Rejection Hurts: A Common Neural Alarm System for Phsycial and Social Pain,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 7 (2004): 294-300.

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About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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