If you have a teenager at home, you know that its pretty normal for them to have all the answers in the world and yet virtually no logic or reasoning. Regardless of what you say to them, they have an answer or idea that is the absolute truth. They are never wrong, adults are never right and the idea of instilling any sort of logic into their lives is virtually impossible. What parents don’t know is that this is developmentally normal for adolescents. Despite how we feel about it, their thought processes are hard wired this way until they are about 25 years old.
During the adolescent years, the brain is growing and maturing. Knowledge is becoming abunant. They are learning through experiences and seperating from their parents to form their own identify through friendships. They are still learning to manage emotions caused by hormones while trying to fit in with their peers and figure out who they are.
With all these different developments going on, the brain is growing and maturing but the last part of the brain to reach full maturity is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is where a majority of the executive functions are located. Executive functions are the highest level of thought processes which help differentiate humans from animals. These functions include attention, the ability to regulate emotions, plan/organize, logic, reason, the ability to inhibit impulses (verbal/behavior), problem solving, ability to multi-task, and working memory.
Some of these functions are present during childhood such as working memory and attention. The others begin to emerge in the preteen years and continue to mature throughout adolescence into adulthood. That being said, adolescents are still developing their abilities to reason, inhibit impulses, plan and problem solve. In summery, adolescents think that they have all the answers but do not understand that they are still developing a significant part of their brain that allows them to rationalize their decisions and accurately plan the consequences of their actions.
This disparity in what they believe and the reality of biological development often leads adolescents down paths towards injury, or trouble. Adolescents are notorious for making bad decisions, thinking that rules don’t apply to them. Whether these are the rules of gravity or rules of society they do not always understand the consequences to their decisions. This applies to the teenager who thinks its a great idea to jump off the roof into the snow so he can impress his friends and winds up breaking his leg, or to the teenager who thinks doing drugs at a party would never end them up in rehab. Neither thought processes is able to accurately predict what the outcome of their actions would be. Either they are short sighted in their decision making process or are inaccurate in predicting the end results. But in the end, it is the underdevelopment of their prefrontal cortex that prohibits them from making sound and reasonable decisions.
Although parents want to treat them like adults and believe that their adolescents are fully grown and should know better, they need to remember that many abilities are still developing and maturing. Although adolescents believe they are capable of making all their own decisions, parents need to remember that this may not be the case for everyone. Some individuals do develop these abilities early while others are late or never fully develop this skill set. Either way, most adolescents are not capable of making mature decisions and could benefit from guidance.
Until their early 20’s, normal adolescents continue to develop these abilities to plan for the future, to understand that their actions have consequences they may not foresee, and they continue to develop impulse control which can place them is difficult situations. Once in difficult or unexpected situations, they are poorly equipped to strategize the most logical way out because they are working with immature problem solving abilities. Although this doesn’t account for every bad decision made by a teenager, it does encompass a large portion.
The good news is that a strong relationship with your child can lead to a trusting relationship, allowing your adolescent to utilize you as a resource until they develop these skills. Most people fully develop these abilities by the age of 25, so parents can be relieved that like the terrible two, their children will also outgrow this.
Friedman, Richard. (2014). Why teenagers act crazy. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/why-teenagers-act-crazy.html?_r=0