Friday, October 26, 2012

Raising Teenagers: An Interview with Dr. Dennis Coates about the Teenage Brain

I recently read a book by Dr. Dennis Coates, Conversations with the Wise Uncle. A book for middle-school teens, it's a series of entertaining stories about a young boy and his uncle who mentors him throughout his teen years. The purpose of the book is to give young kids wisdom and advice when they need it most -- early in adolescence. It has given me some good ideas for talking to both Henry and Oliver, aged 14 and 11. Coates also has a similar book for young girls, Conversations with the Wise Aunt. Denny happens to be the husband of Kathleen, a blogger whom I've read for many years, so I contacted Denny to find out why there's so much on his blog and in these books about the teen brain.

 Whether you write for parents or for teenagers, you seem to talk a lot about the brain. Why?

Denny: I've been involved in learning and development for over 25 years, and early on I realized that learning is something that happens in the brain. So I've had a passionate interest in brain development and brain function –how the brain learns and how habits and skills are formed.

Not long ago I came across some new research about the brains of teenagers that has changed what we understand about the teen brain. The research explains the strange behavior of teens and what’s happening in their brains during adolescence. The long-term consequences are enormous, and if parents understood what’s happening, they could help give their child a superior mind. My work these days is to tell parents what I've learned about this.

What have you learned?

Denny: Brain scientists used to say that basic development of all areas of the brain was complete well before puberty. This new research proved this assumption to be incorrect, that one last area is still under development during adolescence—the lobes of the pre-frontal cortex, the area in charge of critical thinking and judgement.

Why is this important to parents?

Denny: The consequences for the teenager are huge. In the near term, the area for rational judgment is “under construction,” so it’s hard for teens to use it. This is the real reason why teen behavior is sometimes unpredictable, emotional or risk-taking. Several books have been written that explain this. What these books don’t explain are the long-term consequences, and what parents can do to make sure the basic wiring in this area is extensive.

What long-term consequences are you talking about?

Denny: Parents have always known that a child needs lots of stimulation during infancy and encouragement to learn to sit, crawl, walk, talk and other basic skills. What they didn't know is that the child’s efforts cause the brain to wire itself in different areas. And they don’t know that one last area still needs to be wired—the area involved in critical thinking and judgment. And this has to happen during adolescence. Like other brain areas, there is a sensitive period of development, when the child has to do the work to make the basic wiring happen. But the wiring won’t happen if the child doesn't exercise critical thinking and judgment during adolescence. The long term consequence is that a child will become an adult with a superior mind, or a mind with limited capacity for thinking and learning—for life.

What then should parents be doing?

Denny: First, parents need to learn what’s going on in the teen brain. They need to understand how this area of the teen brain develops and the payoff if the teen does the work. And they should share these insights with the teen.

Also, most parents think it’s their job to criticize, lecture, solve problems and give all the answers. The problem is this approach doesn't require the child to think for himself. Parents need to learn a new way of communicating with the child that stimulates him to think.

And they need to do whatever they can to encourage their teen to avoid alcohol and drugs during adolescence, which is a sensitive period of brain development. Substance abuse during these years can derail development in the prefrontal cortex. I know getting teens to stay away from alcohol and drugs has always been a tough challenge, but the stakes are high and the kids need to know about it, too.

Parents shouldn't feel it’s all on their shoulders. They ought to seek other teen mentors who can encourage the kids to think for themselves—relatives, counselors, teachers, employers, program directors.

A lot of what you’re saying seems like new information. Where can parents go to learn more?

Denny: The first thing I’d advise a parent to do is to read the eBook, How to Give Your Teen a Superior Mind. It explains the teen brain issue in non-technical terms, and it has some good how-to advice. They can get it free on the web.

My books for young teens are another good resource. Conversations with the Wise Aunt and Conversations with the Wise Uncle are available on Amazon in Kindle and paper formats. Also, adult discussion guides for these books are available free on the web.

Unconditional love is essential to parenting a teenager, but anyone who has done that knows that love is not enough. It takes a lot of strength and some key parent-child communication skills that most parents don’t have. For parents who want to work on this, there is an online system for personal development for parents called Strong for Parenting. A similar system is available for young adults – Strong for Success.
And I have a blog for parents:, which features new articles weekly and connections to resources from other parenting experts. 

Thank you so much, Denny! I know this information will be useful to my readers, and I really appreciate you reaching out to me on this blog.

To all my blog readers, I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments here, as would Denny. I'm generally not one for parenting advice from books, but I found his research and ideas, as well as books, compelling, and they're really helping me with my own boys. 


  1. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing this important info that all parents need to know.

  2. This should be required reading for every parent. There is so much pop psychology out there that has steered parents in the wrong direction. Understanding what's really happening in the brain of one's child - and what can be done to develop a strong critical thinker - is vital to raising an emotionally healthy, fully functioning adult. And to me, that is the primary job we parents have.

  3. I've always been fascinated with the why's of life and nothing is more important than how we think. Getting insight into helping kids grow into thoughtful adults is a real benefit.

    On a personal note, Denny's fascination with the brain is one of the reasons I married him--I knew I'd never be bored with a man who is always learning and growing. After 16 years, it's still true. And his work continues to amaze me.

    Hope your readers find something in this post that speaks to their families. Thanks for sharing about teen brain development.

  4. Thanks to you both for the interview. It's a fascinating thing, too, from the perspective of kids with, oh, ADHD or Asperger's or anything that involves executive functioning challenges. As they enter the years where the pre-frontal cortex develops at a different pace than the rest of the brain, the impact can be way more pronounced - they're already dealing with a disparity, now it's bigger as the other areas of the brain don't wait.

    The same ideas of helping/teaching apply, of course, but when you have a 13 year old with a pre-frontal cortex already years behind in development, vs. the typical teen now in the "in development" stage, some of the skills you want to impart could be beyond them. Which, then, leads back to unconditional love, understanding, compassion, lots o' patience, and sometimes picking one or two critical issues and leaving the rest for when the time is right.

  5. This is awesome, Elizabeth! I am totally including the links in this month's school newsletter that I edit. Another terrific researcher/writer that addresses this topic (mostly for girl brains) is JoAnn Deak (How Girls Thrive, Girls Will be Girls). She also writes in a non-technical way and impresses the importance of understanding how the brain is developing.

  6. Interesting! My husband and I often joke that Max is the easy one between him and his teenager sister. I'm going to look up these links, thanks for sharing!

  7. Great interview Elizabeth! I will be looking into these books for sure. Love Gregory K's comment above as well.

  8. Interesting! As you know, I'm not a parent, so I don't have first-hand experience with parenting. But I was once a teenager, and yeesh, do I remember that -- it's comforting to know that a lot of my stupid behavior may have had an anatomical basis!

    My partner Dave is a teacher, and he often talks about his teenage students and their lack of brain development when he describes misbehavior. So educators, at least, are aware of this phenomenon.



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