The Developing Teen Brain: An Interview with Barb Steinberg

New findings on the development of the teenage brain are changing what we know about how young people process information and perceive the world around them. This knowledge has potential implications for the way parents interact with their teens and guide them through the challenges of adolescence. To find out more, GENaustin talked to Barb Steinberg, LMSW, a clinical social worker & teen life coach.

Research has shown that teen brains respond differently to facial expressions than adult brains.  For instance, when given a picture and asked to identify the emotion, where adults correctly identified fear, teens were more likely to respond that they saw anger or shock. What does this tell us about the development of the teenage brain?

 Teens are more likely to misread facial expressions. They assign more emotional content to faces than is actually being shown. This is because teens view facial expressions more with their amygdala—the brain area that experiences fear, threat and danger. Adults use their pre-fontal cortex (which in not fully developed in adolescence) for this process—the area of the brain responsible for reason and judgment. This is why many parents get asked by their teen if they are mad at them when in fact they are not feeling angry at all.

What effect does lack of sleep have on an adolescent’s cognitive functioning? How much sleep should they be getting each night?

Medical practitioners recommend that teens get at least nine hours of sleep a night. We know from the early hours of school starting to the late nights of homework, that many teens are not getting nearly enough sleep. Many experience an inability to go to sleep at night – feeling more energetic at 9 or 10pm due to their internal clocks shifting forward after the age of 10. This props them up when they should be feeling sleepy and causes heavy drowsiness upon waking. Teens are experiencing a sleep debt.

What are the repercussions of a sleep deprived teen?

  • Feelings of despondency, poor grades, too tired to join/participate in teams

  • Poor memory, lack of recall of lessons learned in school (the brain continues to consolidate/practice what is learned during the day while asleep – learning continues to take place while sleeping)

  • Driving to school, sporting events, late-night parties while tired creates risks

  • Less able to edit negative emotions


  • Dim the lights at night and get lots of daylight in the morning to help with circadian rhythms

  • Have a routine bedtime of 10 p.m.

  • Sleep in a cool environment, turn off music, the Internet and televisions

  • Try to get up after only an extra hour or two rather than “binge-sleeping” on the weekend

Experiments have shown teenagers take more risks than adults because they value the reward higher than adults, and that they also take more risks when friends are present. How do these finding translate practically to daily life?

 The back of the brain reaches maturity first. The last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex where planning, setting priorities, organizing thoughts, suppressing impulses and weighing the consequences of one’s actions are determined. The final part of the brain to grow up is the part that helps us make positive decisions and choose responsible behaviors.

 This helps to explain why we see risk taking behavior during adolescence. It creates an appetite for thrills, strong sensation, excitement and novelty. Teens’ peers provide novelty and they gravitate toward that.

Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the danger but because they process risk versus reward differently. In situations where risk can get them something they want (like praise from friends) they value reward more than adults would in that same situation. For example, they may drive more carefully when alone in a car and take more risks when their peers are in the car. The feedback from their friends is a valued reward for them.

Taking risks can also be seen in positive ways. It is through taking risks that teens leave the comfort and safety of home and venture out into the unknown world .Their risk taking can be channeled into healthy explorations and independence.

Is there anything else you think is very important for parents to know about teenage development? How does knowing these things change the way parents should communicate with and respond to their teens?

It is helpful for adults/parents to remember that it is unfair to expect teens to have adult levels of organizational or decision making skills before their brains are done being built.  Knowing that their brain in still developing can help us to have some compassion for their behaviors, emotions, and decisions.

 Knowing what we know about the changes that occur in the brains of teenagers as they grow, what is the single most important thing for parents to know about raising a happy, healthy teen?

 We don’t know for sure how much conscious control kids have. We do know that making mistakes is part of how the brain optimally grows.

It might be more useful to help teens make up for what their brain still lacks by providing

  • structure,

  • organizing their time,

  • guiding them through tough decisions (even when they resist) and

  • applying those parental guidelines and values

The brain is wired for social interaction and bonding with caretakers. Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens by staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life.

Knowing this information is helpful, but what else can you do? Barb offers these workshops to help you help your daughters deal with the challenges of adolescence:


Liking the Body She Has (for adults)
From Barbie dolls to the box office, the media is doing a powerful job of telling our girls how they should look – through extreme dieting, airbrushing and plastic surgery. Together we will change this. In this workshop parents of tween/teen girls, will:

  • Learn how to identify thoughts and behaviors that lead to poor body image

  • Establish strategies that will help to quiet her inner critic

  • Obtain tools to build her confidence, help her appreciate the body she has and develop a kinder relationship with her body

  • Discover how to create a positive body culture in your home

Date/Time: Saturday, Jan. 21, 9:30-11:00am
Location: The Griffin School, 5001 Evans Ave. 78751
Cost: $35/person

Register at

 Empowering Your Daughter (for adults)
Girls today feel pressure to be “perfect” (straight A’s, a super athlete and supermodel beautiful). These pressures are damaging. An empowered girl is protected from these pressures for a lifetime.  This workshop will enable you to:

  • Clearly understand empowerment and self-esteem

  • Understand the societal causes of diminished empowerment in young girls

  • Learn the consequences of girls giving up their power

  • Discover the top ten ways to empower your daughter, improve her sense-of-self and help her to make positive choices

Date/Time: Thursday, Jan. 19th, 11:30-12:30pm
Location: Westlake High School Chaps Room, 4100 Westbank Dr. ; 78746
Cost: FREE and open to the public (part of the Eanes Parent Speaker Series)

Register at


GENaustin is also offering workshops for adults this december and we have a variety of workshops year round for girls on bullying, body image and more.


Vanessa Wright