What were you thinking?

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Many parents look at their teenagers and ask themselves, “What happened to the sweet child we once knew?” They are now hard to communicate with and always want to be out with their friends. In many ways, teenagers seem able to make reasonable decisions. But, the next thing you know, they and their friends have gone to the wrong place at the wrong time and made some surprising decisions.

Brain-Image
Results from a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study showing brain activity in children, teens, and adults while they play a game where they are asked to not look at a light that appears suddenly on a computer screen. Adults are better at this game than teens and teens are better than children as parts of the brain that are in charge of controlling behavior have better function.

This is normal adolescence. Adolescence is a period of life when changes happen throughout the body that affect the way teens interact with the world. Hormones are racing. They affect what motivates teenagers’ behaviors. During this time, the brain changes a lot. This causes teens to act in ways they find engaging and motivating.

Research studies show that the parts of the brain in charge of making decisions and controlling actions change as a child becomes a teenager. The front of the brain becomes stronger and more involved in adolescents’ decision making. However, although teenagers can make “adult” kinds of decisions, the new brain changes are not yet perfect and can easily result in teenagers making poor decisions. In addition, research being conducted at the University of Pittsburgh’s Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development has found that adolescent brains have a harder time paying attention to mistakes than adult brains. This means that teens might continue to make the same mistakes.

Research studies have also found that teens might struggle with planning and thinking about consequences. This is because the part of the brain that is in charge of excitement is very active and much more sensitive to emotional situations. Decision making becomes especially difficult when friends are around because they influence behavior. This may be why studies have found that when teens get in trouble with the law it is usually when they are in a group. For example, one brain study found that when teens are told they are being watched by other teens during a driving video game, they suddenly start making mistakes as the part of the brain that cares about excitement “lights up” (their brain activity shows up in an image during the study). This shows that being around their friends makes teens act more impulsively.

Although adolescents can act irresponsibly and get into trouble, scientists understand that this time of the lifespan has a special purpose. Having a brain that is driven to explore new places and experiences, create new circles of friends and find a partner are very important for succeeding as an adult. It is a process that helps with the transition from being in the protective care of parents to an independent life. It is also important to recognize that the same part of the brain that cares about excitement also cares about learning. So, while adolescents do a lot of things that are impulsive and meant to get rewards, this is also a time when they can learn the best ways to interact with those around them. It’s important that parents and teachers not be discouraged if their teens appear not to care or listen; teens actually are listening and affected by what adults say. We can’t stop guiding and giving advice to the teens in our lives, but we need to do so with a calm tone as they are hypersensitive to emotions.

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