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The science behind tweens’ risky behavior — and why it can help them in the long run

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The middle school years are confusing, at best, for everyone involved.

They torment the kids living through them. They also befuddle or trouble parents and educators, and even brain scientists to a degree. One middle school counselor in Montgomery County, Md., was fond of telling parents to imagine that aliens had taken control of their kids for a few years, making their behavior unrecognizable. But they’d be back, she would assure them.

Experts say, however, that maybe we shouldn’t treat these early teen years as a hormone-altered reincarnation of the terrible twos, a stage where we just have to tamp down excesses and “get them through it.” Condescending to middle-schoolers and ignoring the potential of this brain-forming stage of life might exacerbate the struggles they’re facing and perhaps cause us to miss an opportunity to take advantage of the changes happening in their heads.

The brain and body are growing in remarkable ways for kids in this age group. That growth is taking place in an intense middle-school muddle where the other most significant humans in a child’s life are going through the same roiling, risk-taking, social-centric phase, says Shauna King, a former middle school teacher and principal who is now an education consultant. It’s all exacerbated by the fact that the kids are butting heads with adults who often don’t understand or empathize that much.

The brain is buzzing

“The brain is in its final stretch of major neurobiological change during adolescence,” says Adriana Galván, a psychology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of its Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory, in an email. “The first step in helping adolescents understand and use their developing brain more comfortably, creatively and productively is to stop creating a narrative that pathologizes adolescents. Once we feel more comfortable and celebratory about the emerging sense of identity, agency and self-reliance, so will adolescents.”

Jay Giedd, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, notes that there are different theories about what is happening in the brain during this period. Researchers agree, though, that it grows bigger, faster and more complex daily, while struggling to control itself.

“These remarkable brain changes remain quite active into the mid-to-late twenties,” he says. “There is nothing particularly striking in terms of brain maturation that stops at 16, 18 or 21 — ages that have been used as milestones of adulthood.”

Why it’s so hard to get kids’ attention, according to science (and what to do about it)

Giedd says there are three important processes taking place.

There likely is a spurt in the ongoing changes that, from birth, coat some brain cells in a white substance called myelin, causing them to connect, communicate and make key patterns as much as 3,000 times faster, he says. Second, he says, adolescents also develop “plasticity,” a growing ability to change thinking patterns by pruning cells and causing some to “specialize” in response to experience. Finally, the part of the brain that slows us down when we are tempted to take risks, eat impulsively and ignore a homework schedule (or do nearly any of the things that confuse or anger a middle school parent), is developing more slowly, explaining the tendency to engage in risky behavior.

It’s not all bad news, though

“We’re just now starting to appreciate that this sensitivity in the brain to rewards and emotions might lead teenagers to make poor choices sometimes,” Galván says in a Ted Talk where she suggests adults try to embrace this stage of development. “But it also presents an excellent opportunity to seek out new adventures, to meet new people and to confront interesting challenges in ways that people don’t typically do later in life.”

Giedd says even the tweens’ affinity for technology may not be all bad. He suggests that rather than fight their obsession with phones and other devices, we should try to embrace it and guide young adolescents to new technology that influences them in good ways or helps them learn. Technology might even allow us to monitor them and help us spot serious social or emotional issues.

Brain science, he says, should be part of a continuing effort to understand what is happening at this difficult and critical developmental period — and provide kids support.

“There’s huge potential in the almost unlimited number of possible connections the brain is biologically capable of forming,” he says. “If we understood better the forces — for good or ill —  forming these connections we could dramatically improve the well-being of youth.”

How to keep things in perspective

Parents should focus on addressing the most critical issues that come up, Giedd says, and consider their own behavior. Pick your battles, he says, and prioritize which things you need to address immediately and which can wait a few days while everyone cools off. Suicide, addiction, motor vehicle use and choosing to have sex can have consequences, and they need to be discussed openly and have defined boundaries. Clothing choices or music preferences, on the other hand, might not be worth fighting about. And keep in mind that even when they seem as if  they’re not watching you, adolescents learn from role models, including parents.

Molly Mee, who heads the secondary and middle school education department at Towson University, says parents and educators should try to understand and empathize with adolescents, and talk openly about all the changes young people are going through.

“Let them know that emotional outbursts, crying, mood swings are part of growing up and normal,” she says. And ask questions that elicit more than a one-word response: What went well for that day, or what went wrong or made them happy or sad or excited. Each day ask for one thing they enjoyed.

King agrees and says parents must work hard at striking a balance between empathizing with their child and training them.

“They still need our help with life skills such as planning, prioritizing, goal-setting, maintaining schedules and meeting deadlines,” she says. “Parents should stay calm and encourage them but not just expect it to happen automatically.”

Mee suggests that besides checking in with them, check in with their counselor or others who work with them or know them, and gather more information than they like on influential friends. Giedd says that advice is backed by research showing peers have a huge influence during this period. He says fear of being excluded by their peer group is a “big, big driver of adolescent behavior.”

Galvan also recommends finding safe but satisfying opportunities for teens to explore new things.

“Rather than thinking about their risk-taking behavior as rebellion, try thinking about it as an opportunity to learn through trial and error,” she says. “What adults define as ‘risky’ may not be the same for adolescents, and vice versa. For example, adolescents may view going out for the school play or sports team as risky, because it involves social evaluation, but adults are not always sensitive to these risks, and it creates conflict.”

And, she says, an adolescent may see little wrong in doing something that will surprise and even horrify their parents. “Find some middle ground,” she says.

James Paterson is a freelance writer and illustrator and a former school counselor. You can find more of his work at

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