Parent Trap: Teens Do Stupid Things

After watching your 16 year old make yet another dumb decision, have you ever caught yourself asking them, “What were you thinking?” The answer is this: They weren’t thinking! Let me explain.

The limbic system of the brain contains centers for our emotions, pleasure-seeking and risk-taking. By middle school, it has matured enough to send and receive messages fairly quickly. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the consequential, long-term-oriented area nicknamed “the brain’s CEO” for its supposed smart decision-making, will not be fully developed for another decade and a half, maybe two. Thus, your teenager’s brain has a superhighway to their limbic system, but the road to their PFC is under construction.

Our brains contain a substance called myelin that coats our nerve fibers, making impulses travel faster and more efficiently with less leakage of energy. Every time a brain system is used, a little more myelin is added to those nerve fibers. You may want your teen’s brain to quickly send a message to the PFC to regulate their feelings or to think before they act, but the limbic system wins out because it receives signals much faster.

Adolescents also become more distressed than adults when excluded by peers. A part of the brain called the right ventrolateral PFC helps people cope with negative evaluations by peers by reducing stress. Unfortunately, that brain region is still developing in teens and is thus less effective at controlling distress when teens are being teased or left out.

Finally, the teen brain’s baseline level of dopamine is lower than in adults, but the release is higher in response to stimulating experiences. The increased activation of neural circuits utilizing dopamine and increased reward drive causes teens to gravitate towards thrills and risky behaviors. This increases in the presence of peers or when observed, i.e. on social media. Teenagers do have an awareness of the risks and outcomes of dangerous behaviors but place a greater emphasis on the potential positives. Risky behaviors actually have less to do with hormones and more to do with changes in their brain’s dopamine reward system.

Your teenager can develop an awareness of when their internal alarms, i.e. intuition, go off alerting them to rising emotions or at critical decision making points. They can learn to quickly remove themselves for 10 minutes to allow their PFC to cool off the promise of instant gratification. Another strategy involves imagining how proud they’ll feel when they succeed at a willpower challenge. Thinking about someone with good self-control can increase your own willpower, and imagining yourself as the object of other people’s evaluations can be a powerful tool.

All of this doesn’t mean your adolescent has to be at the mercy of their immature brain. This knowledge hopefully also will help you come from a place of understanding and empathy. It’s a long, challenging process to grow up. Kids today start puberty earlier than ever before, but their brains aren’t maturing any faster. Kids will think according to their brain’s level of maturation, not their apparent age.

Tim Jordan, M.D., is a Behavioral Pediatrician who counsels girls aged grade school thru college. Listen to his weekly podcast, Raising Daughters, to gain information on raising strong, resilient girls. For more info on Dr. Jordan’s retreats, summer camps and books visit

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