Book review

The Teenage Brain – A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults

by Frances E Jensen MD with Amy Ellis Nutt, 2015, 358 pages, hardcover,  ISBN978 1 44340 622 2 $32.99 CA

Front cover of the book The Teenage Brain.The Teenage Brain is incredibly well written and engaging.  Jensen has married scientific research and anecdotal case histories, often including her own family, into a readable, understandable and spellbinding book. One feels the angst of teens and their parents and Jensen presents her findings as a self-help for parents, and also for teachers. To the teacher reading The Teenage Brain, there is insight into the behaviours of your students, suggestions for how to react and observational red flags that suggest potential problems.

In The Teenage Brain, Jensen has divided the content into seventeen chapters, which appear to break down into four broad categories. The first involves the science behind the development of the brain in general and the adolescent brain in particular. Here we learn about the various parts of the brain, their stages of development, the distinction between grey and white matter and the neuron-synapse process. We also find out why adolescent sleep patterns are different from those of children and adults, and why they are so prone to taking risks. In the area of learning Jensen gives the latest research and suggestions for parents and teachers. The second section builds on the risk-taking chapter with the ingested dangers to the teenager — tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and harder drugs. The third section broadly covers the myriad of mental illnesses that can accrue in adolescence from chemical abuse and stress. The last section deals with the effects of the digital world, concussions and the evolution of crime and punishment of adolescents. Also included are thirty indexed and annotated illustrations of experimental findings and effects on the brain as well as 45 pages of glossary, notes and bibliography.

Jensen’s journey into the brain and its growth and development is fascinating and eye-opening. Since she is writing for the “parent” audience, she takes great pains to clarify and simplify the science. The metaphors, which she uses to explain the science, are excellent and make understanding complex concepts easier. She also clears up numerous misconceptions adults have regarding adolescent brain development. Juxtaposed with these misconceptions is the research showing how the brain is wired, its plasticity and its ability to learn and remember. This section helps to explain the sometimes erratic behaviour of adolescents. Here Jensen provides insightful suggestions to parents and teachers on handling these behaviours. Her take on multitasking is critical and this adolescent “skill” is challenged throughout the book.

The brain science explains but does not condone the risk-taking behavior and the adolescent penchant for taking drugs and alcohol. However, Jensen provides the parent with ample scientific research of the long-term harm these substances can have on the developing brain.

Jensen moves from substances to stressors which often go hand in hand. This is a good section for teachers as we often add to adolescent stress. She provides “look fors” that a parent or teacher can use to determine if an adolescent is dangerously stressed or suffering from one of many mental illnesses that originate in the teen years.

Jensen then delves into the digital obsession and gender differences as well as the evolution of the adolescent criminal in the justice system. But most intriguing is the chapter on concussions — so prevalent and newsworthy in professional sports — and their effect on the growth of the adolescent brain. Here she provides the biochemistry of the concussion and the brain’s attempt to heal. This chapter should give pause to parents, teachers and coaches. This hit poignantly home with the news story1,2 that Angelo Mosca of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was quoted as being shocked at the extent of the brain damage he has suffered as a result of his football career.

The Teenage Brain is a must-read for parents of adolescents (or adolescents to be) and their teachers, as it provides knowledge and supportive strategies for both dealing with and helping to guide adolescents through these tumultuous years. Armed with the research and potential methods of approach, parents and teachers can be a source of positive assistance and encouragement.


  1. “Sports giant Angelo Mosca copes with Alzheimer’s,” Toronto Star, February 27, 2015.
  2. “Angelo Mosca’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis has other players seeking help,” A follow-up Toronto Star article, March 5, 2015 indicates other Canadian Football League players are concerned with memory losses and brain damage.