How changes to the adolescent brain affect your child’s behaviors

To celebrate Brain Awareness Week, the Idaho Office of Drug Policy invited scientist and brain development expert Dr. Linda Chamberlain to present her keynote The Amazing Adolescent Brain: Opportunities & Vulnerabilities on March 16.

Dr. Chamberlain discussed the brain areas that experience profound change during adolescence, how these changes influence adolescents’ emotions and decision-making, and tips for effective stress relief and improved communication.

You can access the presentation through April 16 on the Idaho Office of Drug Policy YouTube channel. If you are unable to watch the presentation prior to April 16, you find a plethora of free resources online from The Amazing Brain series, a beautifully illustrated, easy-to-read set of booklets written by Dr. Chamberlain that are designed to give providers and caregivers important information about how children’s brains develop, the impact of trauma on brain development, and new science about the teenage brain.

Below is a recap of the discussion and a list of Dr. Chamberlain’s recommended resource materials.

What’s going on in the adolescent brain?

“The adolescent brain is going through a major remodel, a metamorphosis,” explained Dr. Chamberlain. “Both the hardware and software are being updated.” During adolescence, the brain is making new connections that make it faster and smarter, but most of this “work” won’t be complete until a youth reaches their mid-20s.

What does this mean for your child?
As long as their brain is developing, an adolescent:

  • is very susceptible to stress
  • often operates in the more “primitive” area of their brain, which can lead to bad decisions and communication issues
  • is more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Why teens feel stressed

Elevated stress levels in teens can largely be attributed to two parts of the brain, the frontal cortex and the limbic system, explained Dr. Chamberlain. The frontal cortex is the CEO of the brain, the area of reasoning, planning, self-control, and good judgment. Alternately, the limbic system contains the amygdala, the “smoke alarm” of the brain – a primitive area that’s essential for human safety because it’s always on the lookout for danger; it enables fast, impulsive, and emotional responses.

Dr. Chamberlain noted that when a person (of any age) feels highly stressed, their frontal cortex goes “offline” and they operate from the limbic system. Adults can utilize their learned experiences and other tools to minimize this response, but teens are not so lucky. A lack of life experience combined with a maturing brain means that teens often move from the reasoning part of their brain to the impulsive one, which makes them react quickly and emotionally.

Why teens make “bad” or unsafe decisions

Dr. Chamberlain explained that operating out of the limbic system also prevents teens from weighing consequences like adults. The act of thinking about being hurt, being grounded, or losing phone privileges happens in the frontal cortex, and a teen can’t always access this.

This is important to note when it comes to alcohol and other substances. Teens are literally wired to be rash, to choose “fun” and all its associated risks—and they cannot properly assess the dangers and consequences.

What parents can do

  1. It’s important to understand that teens aren’t necessarily breaking rules because they’re being rebellious or disrespectful. They have to work hard to overcome their impulses.
  2. Speak to your child through their lens, not that of an adult. In a tense situation, they are likely communicating from the limbic part of their brain, so their responses may be rash. Stay calm, use “I” phrases, and work to resolve issues together as a team.
  3. Breathing and mindful movement techniques help a teen calm down and actually move them from limbic to frontal cortex thinking, where they can approach a situation more thoughtfully. Dr. Chamberlain recommended the following two exercises, which can be done from a sitting position:
    • Cactus arms. From a sitting position, have your child hold their arms out to the side at 90-degree angles, like a football goalpost. Have them exhale as they swing both arms to rest in front of their face, then inhale as they move them back to the original position.
    • V arms. From a sitting position, have your child raise their arms in a V position above their head as they inhale, then exhale as they lower their arms.
    • Find more deep breathing exercises for kids here.
  4. Provide novel and safe risk-taking experiences for your child, like rock climbing, mountain biking, and theater. These positive risks help teens strengthen the frontal cortex and teach them to assess risks and make tough decisions under pressure.


• The Amazing Teen Brain: What Parents Need to Know
• The Amazing Adolescent Brain: What every educator, youth serving professional, and healthcare provider needs to know
• Learning to Breathe, A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents tailors the teaching of mindfulness to the developmental needs of adolescents to help them understand their thoughts and feelings and manage distressing emotions.
• The Inside Story from helps teens understand the connection between their emotions, health, performance and daily lives. (Free)

About Dr. Chamberlain

Scientist, author, professor, dog musher, and founder of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project, Dr. Linda Chamberlain has worked in the field of brain development, stress and trauma for over two decades. Known for her abilities to translate science into practical strategies with diverse audiences, she is an internationally recognized keynote speaker who conveys a message of hope and empowerment. Her current focus is on brain-mind-body practices to address how stress is stored in our bodies and our natural instinct to heal. A trainer with Capacitar, an international network for well-being and transforming trauma, she has trained and certified in a wide range of practices that use breathwork, mindfulness, movement, and poly-vagal-informed strategies to promote resilience, self-regulation and healing. Dr. Chamberlain taught at the University of Alaska and earned public health degrees from Yale School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Recognition for her work includes a Scientist Scholar with the Fulbright Arctic Initiative, a National Kellogg Leadership Fellowship, an Alaska Women of Achievement Award and the Inaugural Scattergood Foundation Scholar on Child Behavioral Health.