The Adolescent Brain and Stress


Isn’t it interesting how people respond to stress in very different ways? Consider, for instance, how different personalities respond to stress. Both my wife and I are educators and spend most of our day interacting with others. Both my wife and I experience stress in a variety of ways throughout the day. And both my wife and I come home needing to recharge our batteries and gain back some of the mental energy we’ve lost throughout the day. But, unlike my wife, I need to regain my mental energy with a little peace and quiet. I don’t particularly want to engage in conversation or chat through my day–I want to just think. My wife, on the other hand, likes to recharge her batteries by way of conversation and lots of questions. As you can imagine, that can create an interesting dynamic at times (and periodically some frustration between us).

Similarly, we parents often experience “interesting dynamics” and “periodic frustration” with our adolescents. These interactions often leave us wondering why they are being so moody, getting upset, speaking rudely, or becoming withdrawn. Historically, we’ve concluded that their hormones are to blame and things will improve when they are more “chemically balanced” at the end of adolescence. And while there is some truth to that (Jensen, 2016), it is not the complete story.

It turns out “that teenagers don’t have higher hormone levels than young adults” (p. 21). However, they are still learning how to respond to hormones. In the last decade, research has begun to suggest that what makes it so difficult to manage their responses is stress. We know that teenagers have always experienced some degree of stress in their lives, but let’s face it: the stress they experience now is rather unprecedented. Home, school, peers, and parents have always been common sources of stress, but the exponential increase in media, internet, and technology is a new source of stress that bombards our teenagers (with consequences that we still know little about). But I slightly digress. …more on technology in another post.

The problem with stress is that our body’s natural coping mechanism which helps to reduce anxiety, may not have the same effect on the teenage brain as it does on adults. “In an adult, [THP] acts like a tranquilizer in the brain and produces a calming effect about a half hour after the anxiety-producing event.” But in adolescents, it appears that THP may be “ineffective in inhibiting anxiety. So anxiety begets anxiety even more so in teens” (p. 22).

Well that’s good news… Okay, not really. But it might not be bad news either. As a parent (and as a principal), I think my take-away is to not only be more patient with adolescent “craziness,” but also to more carefully monitor stress levels–paying particular attention to how many stress-inducing, anxiety-producing activities my son is engaged in. If my brain is able to deal with anxiety more effectively than his, then perhaps it is incumbent upon me to both teach him how to manage stress/anxiety and to periodically help shoulder some of that burden on his behalf. It won’t always be easy, but at least it gives me a small degree of influence (dare I say: control) in the midst of the craziness. It’s better than just chalking it up to “hormones.”



Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A. E. (2016). The teenage brain: a neuroscientists survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: London.


The Adolescent Brain


Have you ever observed one of your child’s behaviors and asked, “What was s/he thinking???” Maybe I’m asking the wrong question… How many times a day do you ask yourself that? As the parent of a 14-year-old young man (and the principal of 340 adolescents), I have to admit that I can’t count high enough (and I have a degree in mathematics!).

In addition to Irresistible–The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, I recently started reading a second book: The Teenage Brain–A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. Interesting stuff so far…

I’ve always believed (as I’m sure most of us have) that “Teens are impulsive and emotional because of surging hormones; teens are rebellious and oppositional because they want to be difficult and different; and if teenagers occasionally drink too much alcohol without their parent’s consent, well, their brains are resilient, so they’ll certainly rebound without suffering any permanent effects” (Jensen, 2016, p. 4). Actually, I never really bought the one about drinking, but the other two sound about right, don’t they?

And that is the very first lesson of the text: it’s not true. Their IQ is not set, their talents and abilities are far from written in stone, their wiring is not the same as an adult, and their brains are still quite vulnerable. And yet, there are also some unique advantages to having an adolescent brain. (I can’t imagine what those might be…)

Throughout the course of the year, as we explore the pages of Irresistible together, I will also periodically report on my progress as I read The Teenage Brain. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take all the help I can get.



Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A. E. (2016). The teenage brain: a neuroscientists survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: London.

Cell Phone Addiction

cell phone addiction.jpg

Last week I happened to be watching the news and they reported that a recent study discovered teenagers’ cell phones have 10 times the bacteria of a toilet seat! Think about that next time you put a cell phone to your face.

As disgusting as that is, I think we may want to consider a more disturbing fact regarding our teens’ cell phone usage: teens are cell phone addicts.

I recently began reading Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, by Adam Alter. I just started–I haven’t even gotten to the parts about the biology of addiction, the ingredients of addiction, or the future of behavioral addiction, and I’m already concerned.

The front cover has an endorsement from Malcolm Gladwell that reads, “As if to prove his point, Adam Alter has written a truly addictive book about the rise of addiction. Irresistible is a fascinating and much needed exploration of one of the most troubling phenomena of modern times” (Alter, p. 0).

The first few pages begin to explore the topic, noting that tech leaders like Steve Jobs enforce strict technology requirements in their own homes, “following the cardinal rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply” (p. 2). Similarly, video game designers refuse to play the games they develop and app developers won’t use the apps they’ve designed.

The first few pages of the text make two things clear:

  1. Our society narrowly defines addiction, limiting the discussion to elicit drug use or alcoholism. Technology can be just as dangerous.
  2. The designers of technology know how susceptible we are to technology addiction, and they work hard to addict us and keep us that way.

Throughout the school year, I am going to revisit the pages of this text and provide updates as I make my way through the chapters. There is much for us to learn as parents and educators.

Before I sign off, I’d like to draw your attention to this interesting research statistic:


Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

So if your student comes home and tells you that I’ve been taking cell phones and cracking down lately, you know why. I’m simply protecting their working memory and ensuring they are as focused and engaged as possible. It’s just something to think about next time they go to their bedroom to do homework and take their phone with them…



Alter, Adam. (2018). Irresistible The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Group USA.