The Teenage Brain: Still Under Construction
Continuous effort — not strength or intelligence — is the key to unlocking our potential.
~ Winston Churchill
He was 18. Old enough to take on the world, or so he thought, yet young enough to take a dozen dim-witted actions before the sun rose the next morning.
Of course, he thought he was magical. He could do no wrong. He knew it all. He was a smart kid. Way too smart to listen to any stupid rules his parents lay down for him.
His parents weren’t bad. They were good people. They loved him. But they were an endless supply of warnings. And fears. And mistrust. Enough of that crap.
Tonight was his night. It was easy. He was with his best buddies, speeding along in his sparkling new BMW. Flooring the pedal for excitement; braking ever so subtly to take a drag. It wasn’t until later that things got more complicated.
Later, after the screech of the brakes. Later, after the ambulance siren. Later, after the Jaws of Life pulled him out. Later, after he learned that his friend didn’t make it.
This story is every parent’s nightmare. Smart kids doing stupid things. Responsible kids daring each other to be irresponsible. Insightful kids displaying not an iota of insight. What causes such maddening teenage behavior?
The teenage brain may seem like an adult brain, even better than an adult brain. For sure, your kids are smarter, faster, stronger and even wiser than you in myriad ways. But if you have any doubt that teenage brains are not adult brains, just think back to your own teen years. Unless you were a very good (scared) kid, you probably took chances you’d never take today.
The adolescent brain’s construction may help explain their risk-taking behavior. The frontal lobes — the executive part of the brain responsible for weighing choices, considering consequences, assessing probability and ultimately making decisions — has less myelin on them than adult brains.
What does this mean? Research suggests that, as smart as they are, teens don’t access their frontal lobes as frequently as adults do. Parents’ lectures become background when competing with electric, adrenaline-charged activity. Boring for teens is mega-bad. Their brains are wired to seek out thrills, court danger, take a dare, as they convince themselves that nothing bad is ever going to happen.
So, if you have raised a considerate, caring, well-mannered kid and now have a surly, rude alien being on your hands, know you are not alone. The more you lecture your teen, the more he (or she) will have a tendency to blow you off. Some do it defiantly. (Get out of my face, ma). Some do it sarcastically. (Yeah, you always know best, ma). Others do it passive-aggressively. (“You’re right, dad” and then does as he pleases.)
As bright as the young people are today, there are still scads of things they do not know that adults have down pat. This is not their fault. They are “baby adults.” Knowledge can smooth the transition, but it is mostly time and life experiences that will guide young people into mature adulthood.
I do not intend to insult the intelligence of young people. Indeed, many of them are super-smart and have a great deal of savoir-faire. They are equipped with skills and self-confidence that one can only envy. Still, these kids have “aged out” of childhood without successfully transitioning to the social roles, decision-making and myriad responsibilities of adulthood. We adults should not confuse looking like an adult, talking like an adult, even acting like an adult with being an adult.
Sapadin, L. (2013). The Teenage Brain: Still Under Construction. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 21, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/10/20/the-teenage-brain-still-under-construction/