Why Teens Do Those Things They Do

Guest Post by Lisa Frederiksen

How many of us have found ourselves absolutely baffled by our teen’s behavior and in frustration, lash out, “What were you thinking?” or “How could you do that!,” after another of their “stupid stunts?” How any of us recall our own “stupid stunts” and being asked the same questions, with no better answer than, “I don’t know!” 

Well today’s new research on brain development is helping to explain this phenomenon — Teens are not “thinking!” And therein lies the problem – teens are not being obstinate – it’s just they’re incapable of thinking like an adult might because the adult-like thinking areas of their brains are not fully wired, yet. 

Thanks to new brain imaging technologies of the past 10, 15, 20 years, such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), DTI (diffusion tensor imaging), PET (positron emission tomography) and SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), scientists and medical professionals now know that the brain does not fully develop until a person’s early 20s. 

One area – the cerebral cortex – is still under development into early adulthood (and typically does not start this developmental process until mid-teens). This area involves neural network wiring that makes a person capable of cause-and-effect types of judgment, reasoning, logic, planning – the more complex thinking skills. [Yes, young people have been doing some version of this for some time, but think of trying to do a tax return or go to law school at age 13 vs age 22.] Not only that, but the cerebral cortex is where the “stop” or “hit the brakes” messages originate. These are the messages that reign in the “go, seek, take the risk, run with your peers” messages so active in the teen brain’s Limbic System starting around age 12 with the onset of puberty.

Photo Caption: The teen brain goes through a significant developmental stage from ages 12-25. Let the colors sink in. The portion of the brain responsible for judgment, reasoning, logic, planning (darker colors) starts developing much later than the pleasure seeking, risk taking portions of the brain that start around age 12 with the onset of puberty.


Additionally, adolescents do not have the luxury of hindsight. They simply have not lived long enough nor made enough mistakes (or good decisions, for that matter – the ones without mom or dad’s “help”) in order to observe the outcomes – the cause and the effect of their decisions. 

For these reasons, decision-making can be especially problematic for those under age 21 – including the decision to drink or use drugs. 

Understanding the teen brain can help parents, teachers and administrators better understand what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to helping teens make better decisions while their brains are “under construction.” 

Check out these links for further information:

Lisa Frederiksen is the author of nine books and a national keynote speaker with over 25 years public speaking experience. She has been consulting, researching, writing and speaking on substance abuse, addiction, treatment, mental illness, underage drinking, and help for the family since 2003. Her 40+ years experience with family and friends’ alcohol abuse and alcoholism, her own therapy and recovery work around those experiences, and her research for her blog and most recent book, “Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence,” frame her work with individuals and families, businesses, parents, students, medical professionals, treatment centers, public agencies and the like.


Posted on October 9, 2012, in Health and Body. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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