The teen brain

Neurologist Judy Willis, MD, explains how the brain develops in adolescence and shares advice for parents on the best methods for protecting your teen from reckless risk taking
Teenage Brain Development & What Parents Can Do
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The teen brain

If you note that the highest chance of a child dying before adulthood, outside of infancy, is during the teen years. That has a lot to do with what is happening in the brain during the teen years; and I'm not talking hormones. During the brain's maturation, there is a part of the brain where judgement, analysis, risk assessment, is just developing during the teen years. Those connections have not been wired. There is another issue in the brain. There is a dopamine reward for making correct predictions, for evaluating and choosing the right thing; but during the teen years, this dopamine rush also happens when curiosity is explored and risks are taken. That doesn't seem good for survival, but it is in animals, and we inherited it. Teenage animals need to be ready to leave the protection of their parents. They need to push boundaries. They need to explore new places, and they need to take those risks. Like birds flying. We need to protect our teenagers. They are in the bodies that can do a whole lot of things. Their brain does not have these executive functions telling them, "That's not a good idea." Knowing that their brains are wired for taking risks, and not yet wired for making informed decisions, as parents, we need to realize that they are not intentionally trying to do things against us and be their allies. Make a child feel that they can confide in you and tell you anything, and the consequences is not to be punished, but to protect. Help your child survive years that are very risky. You need to let them know that you are someone they can trust.

Neurologist Judy Willis, MD, explains how the brain develops in adolescence and shares advice for parents on the best methods for protecting your teen from reckless risk taking


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Judy Willis, MD, MEd


After graduating Phi Beta Kappa as the first woman graduate from Williams College, Judy Willis attended UCLA School of Medicine where she was awarded her medical degree. She remained at UCLA and completed a medical residency and neurology residency, including chief residency. She practiced neurology for 15 years before returning to university to obtain her teaching credential and master's of education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She then taught in elementary and middle school for 10 years.

Dr. Judy Willis is an authority on brain research and its applications regarding learning. With the unique background as a parent, neurologist, classroom teacher, and neuro-educator she writes extensively for parenting magazines and professional educational journals. Dr. Willis has written six books for parents and educators about applying brain research to parenting and teaching.

Dr. Willis is on the adjunct faculty of the Graduate School of Education, University of California and gives presentations to parents and educators nationally and internationally about how to help children learn joyfully and successfully. She is on the Board of Directors of the Hawn Foundation, dedicated to helping children improve academic performance and acquire vital social and emotional skills. In 2011, she was honored by Edutopia, as a “Big Thinker on Education”.

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