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Brain Check: What's Happening Inside Your Middle Schooler's Mind

An educational psychologist shares the secrets of the teenage brain

Published on: July 26, 2016

There are challenges at every stage of parenting, from the long, exhausting nights rocking your newborn to sleep to the long, exhausting nights waiting for your independence-seeking teenager to get home.

No matter what phase your kids are in, if you know what’s happening inside their brains, you’ll always be better prepared.

Adolescence is an especially cool time, says Jodi Newman, Ph.D., an educational psychologist with the University of Washington’s College of Education and mother of three kids, ages 14, 13 and 6.

The brain’s neural network is still developing, hurrying to complete key milestones during puberty: myelination (a process in which the axons of each brain neuron are coated with a fatty layer — myelin — that protects them and helps conduct signals more efficiently) and synaptic pruning (a process that eliminates brain connections that are not getting stronger through use). Experiences that happen during tween and teen years directly impact this building work.

Your tweens and young teens are very willing to try new things. This could finally be the time to get them to eat tuna tartare or watch that foreign-language documentary.

“Your experiences build your brain architecture,” Newman says.

Sounds great. So what’s the problem?

In human brains, the limbic system (the site of emotions and risk-taking) develops significantly ahead of the prefrontal cortex (where working memory, impulse control and reasoning reside).


“The part of the brain that is ‘Yay, let’s go for it’ is stronger than the ‘That’s not a good idea’ part, so there can be some sticky situations,” Newman says.

But don’t worry (too much). For one thing, all that excitement, emotion and lack of inhibitory control means your tweens and young teens are very willing to try new things. This could finally be the time to get them to eat tuna tartare or watch that foreign-language documentary. 

“They want to change the world, make it a better place. You do want to help them navigate danger, but you can also harness the excitement,” Newman says.

Another big issue for middle schoolers is identity development.

“They are really diving in deep into ‘Who am I? How do I relate to the world? Am I good at stuff?’ They might wrestle with gender, sexuality, academic abilities, social class. And they are taking in a lot of social messages from parents, peers, teachers, media,” Newman says. “They are trying to figure out ‘Am I good? Am I valued?’”

Don’t get frustrated if your tween seems self-obsessed, Newman urges. If he changes his look like a chameleon, be supportive and nonjudgmental. Don’t doubt.

“It’s totally developmentally appropriate for them to be focused on themselves,” Newman says. “That is the task of adolescence: identity finding.”

Even as you strive to be constantly aware and supportive of the massive cognitive work your middle schooler is doing, don’t ignore difficulties. It can be a risky time, Newman says.

“Middle school is a low point in self-esteem. Bullying is at its peak, so there’s that tension between ‘I want to go out and experience things’ [and] ‘Am I any good at anything?’, and this speaks to the need for support.”

Help tweens and young teens find a sense of competence in something. Offer choices and help them develop strong relationships with friends and adults, Newman says. And seek help if your child needs it. 

How to optimize your middle schooler’s brain

Armed with practical strategies, Newman says we can better connect with our middle schoolers and even maximize their natural excitement and learning potential.


  • Give kids complex tasks and chances to make difficult choices and develop self-restraint.
  • Introduce them to new things.
  • Provide opportunities to engage in complex thinking; talk about what’s happening in the world.
  • Read about what they are reading about.
  • Suggest journaling; try it alongside them.
  • Provide opportunities for them to share and explore their stories.
  • Ask them: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
  • If they have a career idea or interest that is different every week, say “Go for it.” Then help them explore those interests.


  • Put up unfair roadblocks such as gender stereotypes or preconceived notions about who is good at what.
  • Be afraid to engage in deep conversations or introduce open-ended prompts, such as “What do you think about this?”
  • Forget to encourage them to think critically about social messages.  

*Names changed for privacy. 

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