The View From Highland Ranch
By John McCormick
Stop the Presses! Teenagers are Strange!
Now the truth is out. Virtually all adults know with certainty that teenagers are essentially crazy. How else can you explain their irrational behavior? Now, studies show that teenage brains are undergoing dramatic physical changes
Two teenagers can look at syllogisms such as
Teen pregnancy is bad
I'm a teenager
Therefore I shouldn't get pregnant
Accidents are the major cause of death for teenagers.
I'm an inexperienced, teenage driver.
Therefore I should drive very fast without a seatbelt while listening to loud music and arguing with friends.
The first will seem totally logical to one teenager while the second will make perfect sense to the other. Both might even seem sensible to the same kid.
Psychologists, therapists and other highly paid brain jockeys say teenagers are merely being rebellious or searching for boundaries. Other great thinkers say it's just hormones.
But recent studies have shown that teenage brains are still developing. This was a big surprise to those biology experts who never bothered to study it before. For decades it was assumed because the human brain is nearly full-size at birth (like a donkey's ears), it was fully developed and just needed filling with facts.
In the past decade a study of MRI scans shows the physical structure of the brain changes dramatically during adolescence. In particular, the prefrontal lobes are nearly undeveloped in a teenager.
Would it surprise you to learn that the frontal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for the ability to correctly interpret facial expressions, reasoning, planning and mitigating risk-taking behavior? When your teenager misinterprets your expression of concern for anger, disgust or something else, it may not be his or her fault, NOR YOURS.
During the teenage years, responses are irrational because the prefrontal lobes aren't yet developed and teenagers process emotional responses through the more primitive amygdale.
And it gets even worse. Paul Thompson, an assistant professor of neurology at the UCLA School of Medicine, said of his research,
"But what really caught our eye was a massive loss of brain tissue that occurs in the teenage years. The loss was like a wildfire, and you could see it in every teenager. Gray matter, which brain researchers believe supports all our thinking and emotions, is purged at a rate of 1 to 2 percent a year during this period. Stranger still, brain cells and connections are only being lost in the areas controlling impulses, risk-taking and self-control. These frontal lobes, which inhibit our violent passions, rash actions and regulate our emotions, are vastly immature throughout the teenage years."
Are teens programmed to take extreme chances in order to procreate and do battle in defense of the tribe? That would make perfect sense from a biological standpoint.
It also explains why that sweet nine-year-old can turn into the Tasmanian Devil overnight. While they are rapidly losing their very ability to control violent emotion, rash action, and risk-taking in the part of their brains that protected them as children, teenage brains are just starting to develop the area that enables them to understand the consequences of their action and gives them the ability to control them.
"Whatever!" A recent PBS Frontline story summarizes a lot of research showing that teenagers react so differently from adults because they physically process external stimuli differently. That is, their emotional response to events often seems wildly inappropriate because they actually use a different part of their brain to convert experience into emotion.
Ok, why did I go into all this? First, because these findings will take decades to work their way through the educational and psychological community and alter the way teenagers are treated.
Second, because it may help some parents and law enforcement people to realize that kids who appear to be acting irrationally aren't necessarily "being smart," "acting up," or "just plain wild."
I'm not saying they shouldn't be held responsible for their actions. A civilized society demands it. But it may help frustrated parents and others who work with teenagers to realize that they aren't just dealing with small, rebellious adults; they are essentially dealing with an alien species, one with a different brain structure.
This explains why kids can change so dramatically when they enter their teen years and also why some wild teens turn their lives around on a dime.
It shows why some are so attracted to cults and gangs, while the natural variations between people shows why some teens never develop problems and others in the same family go completely wild.
The physical changes in the brain also offers clues as to why some teens run away from perfectly nice homes to live on the street in horrible conditions and say that they left because their parents just didn't understand them, or some other seeming nonsense. It actually IS nonsense, but not to them. Yes, some runaways are abused, but some who run away are just reacting irrationally to reasonable rules and discipline. Neither the kids nor the parents are really to blame.
This research also shows why it is so dangerous for teenagers to take drugs of any sort, including alcohol their brains are changing rapidly and they can suffer damage comparable to that which an expectant mother's drinking can have on a fetus. Giving them a "safe" place to experiment with alcohol isn't the answer.
Obviously brains will develop at different rates. Perhaps the well-behaved teens are those whose frontal lobes develop before they lose the parts of their brain that protects children from doing suicidally stupid things. Others have a stronger moral upbringing and losing some of their brain cells doesn't harm them.
Perhaps the ones who never seem to develop a conscience or the ability to see that becoming a criminal means they will spend a lot of time in jails just never develop.
Perhaps if more people realize the desperate problems some teens are trying to deal with literally having their brains altered dramatically in just a few years better ways can be developed to deal with the ones who will eventually develop into productive adults.
Think about it; if teenagers can't logically connect actions with consequences because their brains won't permit it, then how does punishment teach them anything?
If you think I'm down on teenagers, criticizing them, or their parents, or those who work with them, or am making excuses for the things some teens do, then your reading comprehension skills aren't up to par and perhaps you should run for Congress. Sad to say, it's too late to get on the ballot for Governor of California.
Copyright, 2003 John A. McCormick, Inc.
Note to editors and publishers, my column, "The View From Highland Ranch," is available for syndication.