Many parents would probably agree that their teen’s clothing and music choices are strange at times, but most find ways to deal with these kinds of issues. However, when a teen behaves like Pollyanna one moment and the Wicked Witch of the West the next, then claims her mood is somehow her parent’s fault, it’s hard to remain rational. Teens can be reckless, self-centered, impulsive, and impatient.
How does a once-predictable and well-behaved child turn into an erratic and irritable stranger? Does the developing brain have something to do with a teen’s inexplicable behavior? It must be neurological, right?
The teen brain
“Teens are impulsive and reckless, in part, because much of their behavior is guided by more primitive, emotionally-driven brain regions (e.g. hypothalamus, amygdale). This stems from a less than fully-developed prefrontal cortex, which usually governs and regulates this type of behavior,” explains Phillip Zoladz, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio Northern University. “The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until one’s early to mid 20s, which explains why teens continue to act this way until they are at least out of college.”
Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education at Susquehanna University, agrees that changes in neural development can affect behavior.
“During adolescence, dormant cognitive order gives way to mind-numbing change as the brain literally prunes itself.” This leads to “higher order” thinking skills, such as appraising, predicting, and evaluating. “The only problem is that along with such transformation comes a temporary slighting of the part of the brain responsible for judgment,” he explains.
Some teens — despite their neurology — avoid typical teen turmoil. Therefore, experts have also studied how culture and environment influence adolescent behavior.
Robert Epstein, PhD, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, and author of “Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence,” asserts that the kind of turmoil we see in teens in many Western countries is entirely absent in other cultures around the world.
“New research suggests that teens who are prone to take risks may actually have brains that are more mature in some respects than the brains of more passive teens.”
Epstein describes two social phenomena that encourage adolescent angst: the first is that parents “infantilize teens” (treat teens like young children, no matter how capable they may be). The second is “isolation,” characterized by being isolated from responsible adults and trapped in a bizarre, media-controlled peer world.
“The period of life Westerners call ‘adolescence’ is a harmful and unnecessary product of a faulty culture, not of a faulty brain,” Epstein states.
Getting a grip on behavior
Wallace clarifies, “The fact that teen brains may make young people more susceptible to poor decision-making doesn’t mean they are destined to make bad choices.” He explains that parents need to step in to provide judgment when it comes to health and safety issues, but that they can facilitate a more collaborative approach otherwise.
Epstein suggests encouraging independence.
“The important thing is to bring teens forward into the adult world as soon as they show readiness in one or more areas.” He instructs parents to offer meaningful responsibilities, by allowing teens to make decisions regarding their education, money, or work. “A parent’s main job is to encourage teens to make important decisions on their own. Yes, sometimes teens will fail, but that is how one learns to make better decisions. If you try to protect your teens through control and coercion, you teach them nothing at all — except that you are the enemy.”
Tips and tales
“All teens are different and have to be dealt with in a way that works for them.”
— David Hulton, Staatsburg, NY
“Capture moments of empathy as a learning experience to show that the world does not actually revolve around them.”
— Michele Liguori, Hyde Park, NY
“Teens think they have all the answers. One day, they will realize how much their parents know.”
— Deb Wright, Wappingers Falls, NY
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Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist, and author of the newly released book, “LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you” (Unlimited Publishing LLC). Visit www.myrnahaskell.com, unlimitedpublishing.com/haskell (or Amazon.com).