What were you thinking? Were you thinking? Do you know that you could have been killed? Did you think for a minute about the consequences of your actions? Did you learn anything from this experience? …
What were you thinking? Were you thinking? Do you know that you could have been killed? Did you think for a minute about the consequences of your actions? Did you learn anything from this experience? Why do you act this way? One minute you appear to have some measure of sanity and the next moment you are off the wall. Sometimes I wonder if your brain really is in gear or if your brain works at all.
Just in case you are wondering, yes, teenagers do have brains. And yes, their brains actually are in gear and do work. But (and this is a major “but”) teens’ brains do not function in the same manner as adult brains. Recent research reveals that the teen brains are still a work in progress.
Contrary to previously held beliefs which maintained that the brain was fully developed by the onset of puberty (around age 13), we now know that our brains do not finish development until late teenage years or, for some, until the early 20s.
This is an important discovery, as we now understand that it is unfair to expect teenagers to think like adults. Their brains do not give them the capacity to do so. This is why teenagers think like adolescents, not adults.
Unfortunately, the last parts of the brain to mature are the sections of the brain that are responsible for making sound judgments and calming unruly emotions.
In part, this helps to explain why your teenage son may reflect poor judgment such as driving under the influence of alcohol or some other drug, stealing from a department store, or cheating on a test, all the time never clearly thinking through the possible consequences of his actions. Or why your teenage daughter may be an absolute angel one minute and the devil the next.
While the prefrontal cortex, where judgments are formed is practically asleep at the wheel, the teenage brain’s limbic system, where raw emotions are generated, is entering a stage of hyperdrive. Understanding this, it is little wonder that teens often reflect such poor judgment and do so in exaggerated emotional outbursts.
Although some parents might find this a reason for despair, Jay Giedd, a child psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, believes that the developing brain may also be a source of hope.
“The brain’s capacity for growth through adolescence may also indicate that even troubled teenagers can still learn restraint, judgment, and empathy,” he says. Whether or not they will learn, according to Giedd, will depend on how they develop their brains.
In effect, teenagers “choose what their brains are going to be good at – learning right from wrong, responsibility or impulsiveness, thinking or video games.” Parents can encourage the proper development of the teen brain by encouraging healthy, stimulating activities, and minimizing activities that restrict the brain’s healthy development.
The developing brain of a teenager is a frightening and exasperating experience for most parents. A great deal of patience is needed, a lot of faith, and, perhaps some good luck. This is certainly easier said than done. But if you remind yourself that your teen’s brain is a work in progress, this can ease your fear and calm your anxieties.
The day should come when they are fully capable of reasoning and acting like adults.
Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.
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