How to Cool Your Teenager’s Limbic Lava

When are you finally going to use that brain of yours? Think before you speak! Think before you act! Parenting teens can be very frustrating. Your children may not fully appreciate you now, but if you hang in there, they will in the end. I certainly appreciate mine for not yelling too loud after staying at the ice rink so long that I froze my toes; or the day I took a dare to immerse myself in mud up to my neck in back of the high school to look cool in front of my neighborhood friends.

Undoubtedly, payback time comes when we become parents. I vividly remember the day my 16 year old daughter came home from her driver’s license test. She had not only just passed, but had done it on her first attempt. She was in orbit! I stopped her in mid sprint as she grabbed my car keys from the kitchen table. We were both simultaneously incensed. I, by her new found sense of entitlement over driving, and her, for being questioned. After all, she had just passed her test. What could possibly go wrong now? Sparks were flying to say the least!

Parents, sound familiar? Rest assured Mom and Dad, you are not being a bad parent and your teenager is doing what teens do. Remember the “Cool Hand Luke” movie with Paul Newman? A prison guard in conflict with Luke stated; “what we have here, is a failure to communicate.”

Brain based researchers would agree, in that moment, my daughter and I were having a failure to communicate from a biological perspective. Although adolescent brain based research is in its infancy, it is well established that the emotional center of the brain in the limbic system (amygdala), matures earlier than the higher order thinking and planning part of the brain (prefrontal cortex).

Teens with lesser developed thinking and planning parts of their brains have a much quicker route to their emotional center, resulting in what has been referred to by researchers and clinicians as “limbic lava.”  Teenagers are predisposed to volcanic eruptions of raw emotion that can get quite hot.  It is the job of the higher order thinking and planning part of the brain to cool the limbic lava. When our children are unable to cope with raw emotions and think rationally, they need guidance and support to make good decisions.

Activated limbic lava made it very difficult for my daughter to focus and answer the “who, what, when, where, and why” of my questions. “How can you not let me go? I just passed my test! Please, just let me go!” I assisted her by taking a breath, slowing myself down, and providing an explanation for my questions. When she became convinced that it was about her safety, she participated with me in making a plan.

Knowledge of limbic lava does not give us a pass to ignore our teen’s eruptions, nor for them to erupt whenever they want. If we view these eruptions as events that must be corrected immediately however, we could inadvertently be setting ourselves and our children up for failure. If we view our teenager’s development not as an event but an ongoing process, we will have better success. An adolescent’s path to a fully developed thinking and planning (prefrontal cortex) part of the brain can take 10-15 years, extending in to the mid-twenties.

Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegal refers to the adolescent brain as a “brain under construction.” Development starts from the base of the brain, moving up towards the front from lower to higher level functions. The end goal is the development of an “integrated brain.” Emotions are mediated by rational thought for the sake of our children’s ability to control impulses and make sound decisions.

Siegal identifies two very important processes going on in what he refers to as the “remodeling” of the adolescent brain: “pruning” and “myelination.” Pruning is the carving away of previously developed neural connections in pre-adolescence.  Myelination is the laying down of a sheath on the existing neural connections. Both of these processes’ together contribute to increased communication and efficiency between the emotional and thinking parts of the brain. Remodeling can be messy but is a necessary phase for development of an integrated adult brain.

Good news! It is not simply nature that impacts our children’s developing brains. As parents and caregivers, we can also nurture our children towards healthy brain biology. Here are 10 tips from the Raising Children Network that strengthen healthy brain connections:

  • Let your teen take some healthy risks

Providing opportunities such as part time work, volunteering, and travel promote the development of independent identity. As a parent, you get to gauge what you think they are ready for and offer support along the way.

  • Help your teen find new creative and expressive outlets for expression of feelings

Sports, music, writing, art, and theatre are great outlets for expression of feelings during adolescence. Have a chat with your child about what they are interested and provide them with opportunities for creative outlets.

  • Talk through decisions

Facilitate discussions in which you talk through pros and cons of decision making. Counselors often have clients make lists of pros and cons on poster paper, hang them up on a wall, and read them out loud to aid in decision making. You can do the same with your child.

  • Family routines

As hard as it may be with teenagers, rituals such as eating dinner together as a family are very beneficial. You may feel a draw to talk about bad grades, being tardy, or having messy rooms. Be careful with this. Keep the conversation upbeat. You want to create a positive association with your child and the dinner table.

  • Provide boundaries and opportunities to create boundaries

Sleep overs, parties, concerts, and driving around with friends are normal and socially beneficial activities for teens, with limits and boundaries. Negotiate and teach rather than impose limits and boundaries. By nature teenagers are moving towards autonomy and independence and will be much more willing to listen to you if they are empowered in the decision making process.

  • Offer frequent praise for desired behaviors

Noticing and praising your teen for getting a good grade or putting in a good effort is far more reinforcing than chastising for bad grades or poor effort.  Spend more time looking for positive in your child than the negative.

  • Be a positive role model

It is almost impossible to fool a teenager. Your actions have a much more powerful impact on your teen’s attitudes and behaviors than your words. They are watching you more than you think. Engaging in prosocial behavior such as helping, sharing, donating, cooperating, co-parenting, or any other activity that benefits society as a whole are great modeling for your child.

  • Talk to your teen about their developing brain

Your children may be more willing to listen to you if you provide them some education about their developing brains. Taking care of their brain could result in higher grades and better performance in sports and leisure activities.

  • Help your teen develop a sleep routine

This one can take persistence parents. Teenagers produce melatonin later in the evening than we do which can make it hard for them to get to sleep at night resulting in being tired in the morning. Make sure they have a comfortable sleep environment and encourage them to wind down from the electronics before bed. The average teenager needs 9 hours of sleep a night.

  • Help you your teen manage stress

A developing brain is more vulnerable to stress than a mature brain. Be sure to nurture your child and protect them from stress as much as possible. Develop a relationship in which they feel comfortable talking to you about stressors such as peer pressure, chemical use, transitions and other major life events.

Enjoy those kids and check out the resources below for parenting your teenager.


Bates, M. (2014). Michelle K. jetha and sidney J. segalowitz: Adolescent brain development: Implications for behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(12), 2088-2090. doi: