The question, “What were you thinking?” is commonly asked (sometimes daily) by many parents who have teenagers. In fact, just this weekend, I asked the same thing to my nineteen-year-old. It had to do with something she did, which made no logical sense to me that ended up causing her to lose a dearly beloved privilege. Her statement, best summed up her explanation of why she did what she did to lose my trust and this newly acquired privilege was, “ I really don’t know why I did this. Now I understand the consequences but at the time, I just didn’t think “. Here’s my best explanation—teenage brain!
An adolescent’s physical body may resemble an adult but their brain development is quite different. At age 15, thrill seeking and impulsivity peaks, which explains why teens seek dangerous experiences. The up side of this is this sensation seeking also creates the teen to spread their wings and inspire them to meet new friends and try new experiences that help them become more independent. Another difference between the teenage and adult brain is the way risk taking is handled. Research has shown that even the biggest risk taker teenagers (14-to-17-year-olds) use the same cognitive reasoning abilities through problems just as well as adults. The biggest difference is that they just value the reward from their risk taking more than adults do.
Adolescence is a time of great adaptability in the brain. With the onslaught of different neurotransmitters and hormones affecting their brains, their decision-making and learning patterns are influx. Neuroscientists now know that the prefrontal cortex parts of the teen brain responsible for those important operations are not fully developed until their mid-twenties. This means that it might be unreasonable to expect teenagers to have all the brainpower they need to make good judgments.
So what do hand wringing, worried parents of teens do now that they understand that they no control over the physiological changes their children’s brains are going through? First, parents can take comfort in knowing that their teenage children search for new experiences is a normal aspect of growing up. It’s Mother Nature’s way of getting them primed for adulthood. Also, studies show that when parents who are involved in their teen’s lives through balancing that sometimes-difficult tight rope between helping them become more independent along with steady involvement, end up with their children being more successful in life. The trick is finding healthy sources of stimulation for them from athletic endeavors to exposing them to experiences that provide plenty of excitement for their brains. Most importantly, take comfort in the fact that the majority of teens actually get through adolescence without too many permanent scars! And that gives all of us parents a huge sigh of relief!