Why Teens Forget


Mia MacMeekin, of An Ethical Island, and I have worked together to create an infographic about the teen brain. It is partly based on a blog post I wrote some time ago to tackle the issue of Teen Forgetfulness. Through lots of research, checking facts, and rechecking facts, we have found that teens forgetfulness may be due to major changes in their brain during the adolescent years. These changes frequently last into the late teen years and, in some cases, well beyond.

While there is research that demonstrates the increased forgetfulness of teens, we also found that research suggests this time period is an awesome explosion of learning and discovery that takes them into adulthood.

Thanks, Mia! It was a great experience to collaborate on these infographics.  I appreciate your graphical skill!

So, friends, have a look below and tell us what you think!

(PS Further information of teen forgetfulness can be found on my blog here and here.)


Forgetful Teens – revisited

forgetful teen

Teenagers are forgetful. It is a well-known fact.

But do we need to just accept that this is the case or is there something we can do about it?

Some time ago I wrote a post about forgetfulness in teenagers and it is one of the most visited of my posts. So I thought it would be good to revisit this important topic.

Firstly, why are teens forgetful? To quote from that earlier post…

The Prefrontal Cortex (the area of the brain which plays an important role in planning, decision-making, organisation and rational thought) is the last part of the brain to become fully developed.

So, to a degree, they can’t help it.  It is a biological consequence of the developmental process of adolescence.  But that does not have to be an excuse because the reality is we can (and must) do things that will assist teens as they move through the developmental stage.

Here are a few tips:

Scaffolded organisation: We all know that organisation is often the key to remembering. However what we can fail to do is provide the scaffolding teens need to become organised. Parents and teachers need to provide frequent and repeated hints and reminders about organisational structures.  There is a careful balance needed, however, because we don’t want to take all of the responsibility onto ourselves – there must remain a level of natural consequence for the adolescent’s actions.  But I worry for those young people who are left to their own devices when they really don’t have any devices to be left to!  Something as simple as a diary (that is used) will help.  Reminders and routines with responsibility.  That, I believe, is the key.

Busyness kills memory: No matter our age, the busier we are, the harder it is to remember all that we must do. Consider what goes on in a typical teenager’s life, especially their social connectedness, and ensure that the priority balance is correct. The same applies for the extra-curricular activities in their life. Sometimes teachers and parents simply expect too much of students.  Explain the too-busy risks to teens and help them make the tough priority decisions.

Increase the importance of memory: Talk through with teens the value of remembering.  For some (and not all) it is simply easier to forget and deal with the consequences if and when they come along.  But in reality, adolescence is a time of training despite and in spite of the quagmire of a reorganising brain.  They can remember things and should be encouraged and congratulated each time they do.  Help them to believe in their abilities and commiserate with them when they forget the little things.  Definitely avoid chastising them for the little things.  They need support not added stress.

Look for creative methods as prompts:  Encourage teens to use mnemonics and rhymes and phone reminders and paper diaries (agendas) and friends and sticky notes and… anything that works for them.  Try them all and have them see what works for the individual (and remember it might work this week and it possibly won’t work next week.  That’s the fun of it all…)

Remind them that remembering reduces stress:  There will be those students who will get caught in the stress of forgetfulness – or worse, in the stress-forget-stress death spiral.  Gently help them understand (even as the world is closing in on them) that it doesn’t need to be this way.

Temper the technology:  This will potentially be the toughest battle for parents, but limiting an adolescent’s access to technology will have an impact on their memory.  The research I’ve read of late has been pointing to the fact that none of us (not even teens, despite their protestations) are as effective in multitasking as we’d like to think we are.  Encourage them not to surround themselves with multiple devices when schoolwork is a priority.  Technology can have an impact on sleep too, which will have a subsequent impact on memory.  This can be addressed as simply as establishing a central location in the house where all the phone chargers are plugged in.  Consequently, all of the phones (including the parent’s) will be there overnight.  No 2am texting.  No disturbed sleep.  No tiredness impacting memory function.  The same thing should apply to computers and TVs and iPods and… anything that becomes a consuming force in a teen’s life.

Allow natural consequences:  How teachers and parents deal with the times of (inevitable) forgetfulness is vitally important.  Find the balance between supporting but not rescuing. This ‘balance’ will change for each individual but it is important that every teen experiences the reality of their situations.

Forgive:  It is important to finish with this!  Remember, teens will forget.  It is often because they can’t help it; it is biological.  Support them, encourage them, care for them and accept who they are at this stage.

What do you to to support forgetful adolescents?


You can find out more about forgetfulness in teens by checking out an infographic  elsewhere on my blog called Why Teens Forget.


Forgetfulness in Teens


What is it about teenagers and forgetfulness?  Are they just being disobedient or disrespectful?  Is it selective hearing and they only choose to remember those things they want to?


You ask them to put their clothes away only to find the clothing exactly where you left it.

You send them to the shops to buy three simple things and they remember two (or have to call you to be reminded of all three).

They tell you, adamantly, four times that they have no homework and then suddenly remember, just as you send them to bed, that an assignment is due.

They finally remember to look in their locker and suddenly find their long-missing school jumper.  Despite your nagging.  The day after you bought them a new one.

What is it about teenagers and forgetfulness?  Are they just being disobedient or disrespectful?  Is it selective hearing and they only choose to remember those things they want to?

As much as we might like to think this is the case, the reality is likely to be something much different, and something we (frustratingly) can do little to fix.  For the reality, in many cases, is that forgetfulness in teens is due to what is happening in their brain.

During adolescence, the brain is undergoing significant redevelopment and reorganisation.  The Prefrontal Cortex (the area of the brain which plays an important role in planning, decision-making, organisation and rational thought) is the last part of the brain to become fully developed.  Often this part of the brain is not fully developed until the early 20’s (some wives are unsure whether it ever develops in some males).

Obviously this has a significant impact on a teenager’s ability to remember things that are important (well, important to parents and teachers).

When you add to this the fact that adolescence is also a time when hormones are flooding the brain and when the body’s circadian rhythms (sleep patterns) can shift remarkably resulting in a level of sleep deprivation, we start to get a picture of the very real struggles teenagers can have in recalling facts and events.

So, is there anything we can do to support our teens?  The good news is that, yes, there is.  And while we cannot expect forgetfulness to disappear, we can consider some fairly simple strategies that may help.

Perhaps one starting point is to evaluate the busyness of our teenager’s life.  For some, the frenetic pace of school, homework, assignments, work, sport, family events, Facebook profile maintenance, music lessons, youth group activities (you get the idea)… is simply making it impossible for them to keep track of what needs to be done next.  You may need to make some hard decisions about priorities and help your teen look at which aspects of their activity-life needs to be pruned.

There are also some simple tools you could consider that may assist both you and your teen keep track of ‘life’.  The College provides all secondary students with a Student Wall Planner.  Parents are encouraged to use this with their teen, in conjunction with the published assessment calendar and personal diary, to record the due date of assessment items and exams.  It is also a good place to record the regular events of their life and give you and them an overview of where the pressure points of life may lie.

I have seen some significant success at school when students have used colour-coded document wallets.  Students are encouraged to colour-code their books and learning materials needed for each subject.  All of the English materials, for example, might have green somewhere on them and would be kept in a green document folder.  The student’s timetable would then be printed with each of the English lessons for the week coloured green as well.  The same process happens for each subject – new subject, new colour.  Once this timetable is put in their locker, the students can easily see that they need to collect their green, red and blue folder for the next few lessons and can feel confident that they have all of the things they need for each of those subjects.

Other students have been using a single satchel which contains all of their subject notebooks along with their diary, pens, and the like.  While this is bulkier, they feel confident in having all of their books and materials with them no matter the lesson they attend.

Teenagers also need to be reminded that diaries and calendars, whether paper or electronic, actually do work but only when they become an integral part of the daily routine (both at school and at home).  But more than the reminder, many teens will benefit from the time a parent spends helping them set up the diary in a way that suits the teen.

Parents might also assist teens to establish a routine of thinking through the day ahead and laying out everything they need before going to bed.  Again, this may take some carefully timed encouragement and support (and reminders).

Whatever the support mechanism we use with teens to assist their memory, it is important that we understand that teens need reminding to use them. Many simply forget, often from one day to the next, that their diary needs to be used (or even that their diary exists).  What teens call nagging, parents know is consistency.  Yes it is frustrating, but our job is to fill in the gaps created by an intermittent prefrontal cortex. Perhaps the most powerful support-scenario is for parents to understand that teenagers still need significant support or scaffolding to manage the myriad of things they need to remember.



This is an article I wrote for parents at my school. I’m happy for you to use it in your school, with appropriate recognition, but please send me an email to let me know you plan to do so.

I have written a follow-up post on teenage forgetfulness.  You can read it here.

Image:  (c) Marcus Møller Bitsch.  Used with permission.  Check out this young man’s work.  It is creatively awesome!