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!



16 thoughts on “Forgetfulness in Teens

  1. Hi David,
    I read your article with interest. I am an Assistant Principal taking on the role of Year Head to first years this August. I will have to meet the parents for an induction meeting and I was doing some preparation work when I came across your article. As the mother of an eleven year old boy …it made me smile! With your permission I will use some of your pointers and adapt them to an Irish setting. Interestingly, my twin daughters now in college did not seem as disorganised and forgetful as my little boy is becoming…Maybe it is more a boy thing. Thanks again.
    Mairead Earley, Colaiste Bride, Clondalkin, Dublin, Ireland

  2. Hi Mairead,
    Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. I’m glad you found it useful!
    By all means, please make use of the article for your parents. I trust your time with them will be fruitful.
    If you are interested in brain research and the underlying reasons for the changes during adolescence, I have found these books useful:
    Unleashing the Potential of the Adolescent Brain (Corbin)
    Teaching the Male Brain (Norfleet James)
    Secrets of the Teenage Brain (Feinstein)
    All the best in your leadership in your school, and as a mum of a teenage boy. Enjoy the ride!

  3. Hi David, I think your explanation is brilliant! I was wondering if it was happening just with my daughter… Now I just hope she grows out of it, as my ex partner (now a close friend) seems to behave the same or worse than my daughter, only he is 42 years old, not 13. It does worry me! Please could you tell me if the stubborness is also related to the brain development? Many thanks for your advice.
    Regards Amelia

  4. HiAmelia,
    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found something useful in the post.
    Regarding stubbornness, I’m not aware that this is related to brain development specifically (I’m happy to be proven wrong if that’s the case however). What I would suggest is that stubbornness can be a behaviour that stems from something else happening in the individual’s life. I wonder whether some elements of your daughter’s stubbornness might be related to a sense of fear of responsibility? Perhaps refusing to do something means that she is not putting herself in a place where she might forget something and have to deal with those consequences.
    In reality, however, behaviours like stubbornness can come about for all sorts of reasons and it would not be sensible for me to make suggestions from an uninformed position.
    I would suggest that you have discussions with her teachers and other professionals in her life. They might be able to see some behaviour patterns which may give insight into her choices.
    I trust you will find those solutions and will continue to work hard at the relationship you have with your daughter.

  5. Your article touches home for our family and my 11 year old son. Every week we receive emails from his teachers that homework is late or something isn’t turned in that he says he has handed in or finished. I like your idea of the colored folders which we will implement for completion of all of his assignments. This is the first year of Middle School and. It’s been very challenging for our family. I will take a closer look at some of your reading recommendations. Thank you!

  6. Thanks for leaving a comment.
    Forgetfulness is a tough and frequently-found problem in teens.
    Glad the idea about folders looks like it might work for your son.
    Organisation is a big step forward but not the only thing that is needed. Sometimes all the organisation in the world will make no difference. Understanding is also important; your understanding as the parent and your child’s understanding of what is happening to him. Don’t let it be an excuse for him, but a point of learning. And keep the consequences in place.
    Enjoy the journey through adolescence. It’s a wild ride, eh!
    And if you find something that works for you, I’d love to know about it and include the idea in a post for all to read.

  7. hi. your article has helped my home so much. I have been having problems dealing with my teenage daughter who is 14 now. But with the knowledge i have gained from your article, It makes it easier for me to relate with her.

  8. Hi Joy,
    I am thrilled to know that something I shared has been a support to you.
    Adolescence can be a challenging time come many parents and teens. We all need to gather as much info as we can and try a whole lot of things to see what works best for our own precious adolescent child.
    Thanks so much for leaving a comment. It means a lot!

  9. Spoon feeding more like!
    Stop treating teens like toddlers.
    And parents as carehome workers.

  10. Hi vinlys or,
    It seems we have differing views on this topic.
    I believe there is a difference between spoon feeding and supporting young adolescents in their developmental journey. Yes, there are times when they must be expected to take responsibility, but there will also be plenty of times when they need the support and understanding of adults if, for no other reason, because the changes in their life are having a significant impact on their ability to manage some aspects of their life.
    I agree that we must not treat them like toddlers. But neither must we treat them like adults. Teens, and tweens especially, are developmentally unique and deserve our support, encouragement, guidance and understanding.

  11. Hi David

    Your Article rings true in our family too!
    My poor child is so scatter-brained, which is why I googled ‘forgetfulness during puberty’ I needed to know that this was normal!

    May I add that an idea we had for remembering homework or incomplete work in a subject. It is to use sticky notes as markers, so that the reminder is visible the moment her books come out the bag at home.

    Great article. Thanks.

  12. That’s a great idea Riette. I think I’ll get a bunch of sticky notes for my classroom and have them available to kids when we record the homework to be done.
    I’m glad you found something of value in this post.

  13. hi david

    is it true that artistic people tend to be more forgetful and absent minded than others?


  14. Hi Olga,
    In my experience in working with adolescents, I don’t believe there is a significant impact on forgetfulness that is necessarily dependent on the individual’s creativeness. Perhaps there is an argument for Maths / Science / logical brain types to have a greater capacity to be organised (which supports remembering) and there are some creative types who become absorbed by creative processes and may ignore other elements of life (hence seeming forgetful). However I see the changing adolescent brain affecting all young people in different ways and it doesn’t seem to be selective based on temperament or left / right brain preference.
    What has been your experience? Do you see things differently from your perspective?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *