Terrible Teens!

By September 3, 2015Brain Development

We have continued to write about adolescents and even more specifically, the teenage brain. Many others far more scientific then we have written hundreds books and many thousands of articles on teen behavior.

One article in “The New Yorker Magazine,” just recently caught our attention. Just for the record, we work with adolescents on a very regular basis. Very, very few of them might we ever consider “terrible.” They are simply teens and have a normal adolescent brain. This article we think is a “must read” for every parent of a teenager.

Author, Elizabeth Kolbert, writes that “every Adult has gone through adolescence, and studies have shown that if you ask people to look back on their lives, they will disproportionately recall experiences they had between the ages of ten and twenty-five. Why, then, would we, as adults, continue to consider this developing brain a mystery? We continue to be amazed how many parents expect “adult behavior” from their teenager. Moreover, we think that any parent who may believe that their teen exhibits adult maturity is either lying or is delusional.

A parenting guide, “The Teenage Brain: A Neurologist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults,” that Francis Jensen, a mother, author and neurologist wrote with Amy Ellis Nutt, states that “adolescents suffer from the cerebral equivalent of defective spark plugs.” They write, “teens are not firing on all cylinders when it comes to the frontal lobes.” Why, then we ask should parents be surprised by the far too numerous stories that we hear about tragic mistakes?”

The brain’s frontal lobes are the seat of what we often refer to as “executive functioning.” They are responsible for planning, self-awareness, and for judgment. When fully developed, they would act as a governor of impulses that might originate in other parts of the brain. However, during their development years, the brain is still building the links which typically begin in the back of the brain and then move forward. Researchers know that frontal lobes are among the last of the regions to get fully connected.

Laurence Steinberg, researcher and professor of psychology at Temple University, authored an “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence.” While he, like many others, recognizes the difference in teenage brains, rather than suggest the limitation is to be found in the undeveloped frontal lobes, he views the issue as an enlarged “nucleus accumbens.”

Steinberg suggests that during childhood, this “pleasure center,” as it sometimes referred, grows and reaches its maximum extent in the teen brain; then it begins shrinking. He suggests that it is this enlargement along with other sensation-enhancing changes such as the brains spouting more of the neurotransmitter, dopamine that contributes to stimulating risky behaviors. Steinberg says that which we all somehow know to be true: “Nothing – whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music — will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager.” He states, “the notion that adolescents take risks because they don’t know any better is ludicrous.”

He believes that, from a teen’s, neurological perspective, the potential rewards are simply much better.

The bottom line for us is that society in general and parents of adolescents in particular should not be surprised that left to their own devices, their teens will, more than likely and inevitably, make some poor judgments.

For the vast majority of parents, getting their teenagers safely through their teens is a difficult and thankless job. Holding firm, being vigilant and maintaining open communications help. Today, more than ever, the mismatch between an adolescent brain and their environment is only getting more challenging. However, don’t give in to it. Rise to the challenge. It will get better in the end.