Monday, July 20, 2015

What's Really Going On in Their Heads? A Lot!

If you're the parent of a teenager, you may sometimes (often? always?) find yourself rolling your eyes, shaking your head and resisting (or not) the urge to ask "What is going on in your head?" 

With all due respect to Dorothy's Scarecrow, some days (with most teens) it's hard to remember that there's a brain in there at all.

Our daughters and sons start looking like adults as they hit puberty and adolescence. At this point, my own "little" girl is almost as tall as I am. They want us to stop treating them like babies. They beg us for freedom, respect and independence (when they don't need our credit cards or a ride somewhere). And their own feelings of grownuppiness are reinforced by a string of societal privileges. My daughter started driving last year. She's now eligible to enlist in the military. This fall, she'll be able to vote and buy cigarettes (I'm hoping she'll take advantage of the first and not the second).

It's no wonder we get so frustrated when these seeming adults act like children.

Or worse.

Like brainless soul-sucking monsters. (Harsh? Maybe, but let's face it, we've all thought it.)

We assume our teens are lazy, melodramatic, stubborn, selfish. (I'm sure there are countless more adjectives we could add.) We wonder where we went wrong raising such heartless, brainless, careless creatures. But, science has shown that their behavior is more about nature than nurture. Specifically, it's about anatomy and development. Their brains are quite literally works-in-progress.

Compare two important parts of the brain: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. (No, I wasn't a science major — "As if!" — but I'm a wicked good Googler.) These develop at two different rates; the amygdala tends to mature more quickly, while the prefrontal cortex isn't finished evolving until about age 24. The fully-functioning amygdala governs instinct, aggression and emotion. The not-fully-baked-yet prefrontal cortex is responsible for
paying attention, regulating mood, impulse control, and the abilities to plan ahead and understand the consequences of your behavior.

So where does that leave teenagers (and their parents)? Emotion-a-palooza without the balancing benefits of rational self-control.

Sounds a lot like a teenager to me.

Layered on to all of this is the individuality of each teen's growth process. Some kids may seem particularly immature, but that's most likely out of their control. Each brain — like each body — develops at its own rate. You can't condemn a teen girl for being a late brain bloomer any more than you can blame her for being a late boob bloomer.

Older generations always bemoan younger ones. "Things were different when we were kids," they insist. "We were more responsible, more selfless, more mature." I'm sure they believe what they're saying.

But, science — and parenting experience — say otherwise.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of my book  Lovin' the Alien at

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