How To Talk To Your Teenager’s Brain: Making Communication Easier Between You And Your Teen


“You’re wearing THAT to school?” How often has this become the morning battle between you and your teenager? It seems almost impossible to speak to your teen without the explosion, with both sides erupting, even before the words come from your mouth. It happens in a split second. Teens seem to respond to your queries in warp speed by getting defensive and shutting you down. What’s going on? Can you actually have a calm, rational conversation with your teen?

There has been a lot of new information recently about the mechanics of the teenage brain. Thanks to advances in science, PET scans and MRI testing, we are able to see the scientific proof of what we as parents have known for years.

Yes, our teens are impulsive. They think in the short-term, ignoring consequences and have emotional flare-ups that seem to come from no where. Studies are now explaining why this happens. Once we blamed it mostly on hormonal changes in our kids. Now entering center stage is the brain, and the frontal lobe has the starring role. 

A recent New York Times Bestseller, “The Teenage Brain”, by Frances Jensen, MD, explores the mechanics of how our teens are wired. She explains that our brains develop and grow in uneven patterns throughout childhood. Our brain synapses take time to wire and fire up when and where they should. In fact, the frontal lobe, which controls our impulses, our rationality, our decision-making, is the last to develop, usually fully forming way into our late 20s. That can mean certain teenaged behaviors and thinking can continue into young adulthood. Let’s thank the brain for that!

Now that we understand what the mechanics are, what do we do with it? How can we respect our teen’s developing brain while parenting them as smoothly as possible? What does this research tell us about our children?

It’s Not Always About You

For starters, don’t take it personally! So, if your teen is forgetting to go home to walk the dog after you’ve asked several times, or decides to take your car out for a ride without permission, the frontal lobe can be the culprit! That’s the part of the brain that controls memory, judgement, impulse control, sexual and social decisions, as well as the ability to think while considering long-term consequences. So, taking yourself out of the equation might be a good start. What appears to us as rebellious behavior, may simply be our teens acting with “frontal-lobe immaturity.”


Have A Conversation About What’s To Come

Before speaking to your teen about a “hot button topic,” it might be wise to prepare them for their response. Don’t hit the high point of the argument straight off the bat. Instead, start a conversation about what you are going to be talking about. Let your teen know that what you are about to say to them might get them upset. So when your teen daughter comes out wearing a top and skirt small enough for a pre-schooler to share, turn the conversation about the conversation you are about to have. Let her know she may not like what you are about to say. You can reassure her that you understand why. You know she feels good in that outfit and wants to look pretty. You may want to mention that she may feel angry with you and disagree with what you are about to say. 

This allows teens the prep work that their brain development isn’t yet able to give them. You are essentially slowing things down, allowing them to not solely rely on that fully established emotional part of the brain. And, by letting them know that you can understand how they might react, you are letting them feel understood, and that you are not a creature from an alien time zone they describe as the 1980s!

Tell Them To Hold Off On Responding

After the work of telling them that you are going to tell them something, let them know that you don’t want them to give an answer right away. Let them know that you just want to say what you need to, and you don’t want an answer for at least a few minutes. So, back to that daily dreaded clothing conversation with that teenaged daughter we started with. Best not to rush her into her room to change. After explaining that her outfit is more appropriate for a day at the beach than a day learning math and english on a cold November morning, give her a few minutes to think things over. Challenge her to not say a word for a few minutes. She may then be able to hear what you are saying, giving time to process a connection between weather and outfit choice and feel less pressure to push against you in an explosive way. Again, be the brain for your teen! By slowing down their reactions, you are dong for them what their brain can’t right now. The ability to think complexly and hold consequences in mind is a few years, and a few thousand synaptic connections away!

Pay Attention To How You Speak

Before the words are spoken, let them hear your even tone of voice. Oftentimes, teens respond to how you say things even more than the words you actually use. If you are able to draw attention to your non-conflictual, even tone of voice, your teen may be less reactive, and be able to hear and register your message. 

Knowing what’s happening with your teen’s brain can be an asset to your parenting. By prepping your child properly for what’s to come in your conversation, you have a better chance of being heard. Be his or her surrogate frontal lobe. Be the functioning brain for your teen by slowing things down, preparing them for what’s to come, not demanding impulsive responses and making connections for them that they can’t until their brain is up and running at 100 percent capacity… sometime in their mid 20s!

It’s also really important to hear your teen as well. These pointers can be applied to parents as well. We not only want our teens to hear us, but they really want to be heard, understood and responded to by us as well. The goal isn’t always to get your point across, but to dialogue and have a respectful back and forth with your teen. 

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Coren Schwartz, LCSW, has been a Westchester resident for the past fifteen years. She shares her time in Westchester helping to raise her family and working as a psychotherapist. Her expertise focuses on adult relationships and parent/child issues. When not in her office working or driving her children to their after school activities, she can be found walking her 80 pound puppy on the beautiful local trails. To learn more about Coren Schwartz and her psychotherapy practice, visit her website at