I recently committed to reading more books that ran counter to my opinions and worldview as a way of challenging myself to see the shortcomings in my beliefs and to prevent me from becoming too dogmatic in my defense of child autonomy and liberation. When I picked up The Teenage Brain by Frances E. Jensen, I had no idea that this would fall into that category. But worse, it became the worst parenting book I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot. With so many good books out there, I encourage you to skip over this one.


This book is not just bad; this book is dangerous. It is dangerous because it is filled with terrible advice misleadingly wrapped up in the cloak of scientific certainty. While Jensen may be a brilliant neuroscientist this book is filled with meaningless anecdotes intended to scare parents, wildly misguided parenting advice that is not based on neuroscience or any science (except maybe reductive behaviorism), and an unhealthy focus on making kids successful in hyper-competitive academic environments instead of helping kids develop a strong moral fiber and a healthy approach to life.

Throughout the book she keeps using correlations (and occasionally causal arguments) to exaggerate risks of various threats (listed by chapter) to justify micromanaging and controlling behavior over teens. Only at the end of chapter 16, despite the writing in much of the book, she finally acknowledges that “Making judgments, even scientific judgments, based on what is available and known is at best foolhardy and at worst dangerous. That is certainly the case when it comes to pointing to objective evidence for a causal relationship between neuromaturity and real-world activity, especially criminal behavior.” She (correctly) does so in reference to the aggressive approach to trying and sentencing young people in the criminal justice system.

Later, on the same page (p. 276), she quotes Jay Giedd, “Behavior in adolescence, and across the lifespan, is a function of multiple interactive influences including experience, parenting, socioeconomic status, individual agency and self-efficacy, nutrition, culture, psychological well-being, the physical and built environments, and social relationships and interactions.”

Her willingness to acknowledge the circular and reinforcing impacts of environmental influences coupled with the developing brain and mind when it comes to criminal justice considerations; while being hyperfocused on direct correlation (hinting at causation) when it comes to the topics of other chapters and the impact on the brain (or IQ or school performance); leads me to believe that she knew that she was employing dishonest and disingenuous scare tactics throughout the book for the sake of selling books.

And it worked. It was a New York Times best seller. And it got stellar reviews. I guess a bunch of graphs of brain activity and scary stories, coupled with an author who is a neuroscientist who sent her kids to a $53k per child tuition private school, with one getting into a MD-PhD program and the other one getting into Harvard College, is enough to convince lots of people that this is somehow a great parenting book.

If I could give this book zero stars I would.