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Those crazy teenagers! What do they think they’re doing?

Posted Oct 04 2011 9:42pm

What is it about teenagers that drives their parents so crazy?

I had a mother of two young teenage boys in my office this morning, bewailing the very typical actions of her sons.  By all accounts her sons are good kids - they (generally) listen to her and (eventually) do ask she asks them to.  They aren’t in trouble at school, generally get A’s, and really enjoy each others’ company.  But they still know where her buttons are and exactly how to press them.

Far too often teenagers seem to be custom-ordered to drive their parents nuts.  This may be, in fact, because they are evolutionarily programed to do exactly that.  This month’s National Geographic has a fabulous article, titled Beautiful Brains , about adolescent brain development and how to best interpret the things we know about adolescent development through an evolutionary lens.  (That link goes to the full text as I publish this post, but I’m not sure how long it will last in that location.)

Adolescent brain research has revealed that our brains continue to develop through adolescence and long into adulthood.  There are some critical parts of the brain that tend to develop in middle- to late-adolescence, however, most importantly to this conversation is the development of the frontal lobe.  This allows the adolescent to weigh costs and risks, make (and stick to) long term plans more effectively, and more.  This piece of information about the developing adolescent’s brain has led to a typical narrative of adolescents that the National Geographic article defines like this:

The slow and uneven developmental arc revealed by these imaging studies offers an alluringly pithy explanation for why teens may do stupid things like drive at 113 miles an hour, aggrieve their ancientry, and get people (or get gotten) with child: They act that way because their brains aren’t done! You can see it right there in the scans!

This view, as titles from the explosion of scientific papers and popular articles about the “teen brain” put it, presents adolescents as “works in progress” whose “immature brains” lead some to question whether they are in a state “akin to mental retardation.”

My own strong distaste for this typical view of teenagers is what got me into psychology, education, and adolescent development in the first place.  As a teenager I railed against the idea that I knew myself less well, had a decreased capacity for long-term thoughtful consideration, or was generally less capable in any way than anyone older than me.  It still drives me crazy when older individuals discount ideas, thoughts, and input from young people as though the number of years someone has been alive is a magical feature that, all by itself, bestows wisdom and skill.  Teenagers are not half-baked adults.  While this is an important concept to understand, it is even more important that older people utilize it when interaction with young people.  Treating someone as not-quite-fully-formed will not win you any fans among the younger generation.

The National Geographic article goes into good detail about how brains develop and how we should view that development through the lens of human evolution in a way that is far more appropriate and respectful to the life-stage that adolescents are in.  Based on a re-visioning of this process,

a few researchers began to view recent brain and genetic findings in a brighter, more flattering light, one distinctly colored by evolutionary theory. The resulting account of the adolescent brain—call it the adaptive-adolescent story—casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside.

It’s a great and informative article from start to end, and I highly recommend you read it in its entirety.  However, if you can’t take the time to do that, here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Some brain-scan studies, in fact, suggest that our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply. At a neural level, in other words, we perceive social rejection as a threat to existence. Knowing this might make it easier to abide the hysteria of a 13-year-old deceived by a friend or the gloom of a 15-year-old not invited to a party. These people! we lament. They react to social ups and downs as if their fates depended upon them! They’re right. They do.

Culture clearly shapes adolescence. It influences its expression and possibly its length. It can magnify its manifestations. Yet culture does not create adolescence. The period’s uniqueness rises from genes and developmental processes that have been selected for over thousands of generations because they play an amplified role during this key transitional period: producing a creature optimally primed to leave a safe home and move into unfamiliar territory.

We parents, of course, often stumble too, as we try to walk the blurry line between helping and hindering our kids as they adapt to adulthood. The United States spends about a billion dollars a year on programs to counsel adolescents on violence, gangs, suicide, sex, substance abuse, and other potential pitfalls. Few of them work.

Yet we can and do help. We can ward off some of the world’s worst hazards and nudge adolescents toward appropriate responses to the rest. Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life. Adolescents want to learn primarily, but not entirely, from their friends. At some level and at some times (and it’s the parent’s job to spot when), the teen recognizes that the parent can offer certain kernels of wisdom—knowledge valued not because it comes from parental authority but because it comes from the parent’s own struggles to learn how the world turns. The teen rightly perceives that she must understand not just her parents’ world but also the one she is entering. Yet if allowed to, she can appreciate that her parents once faced the same problems and may remember a few things worth knowing.

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