“Yikes! this kid of mine? What in the world happened to them?” Often, counselors will hear parents lament about the challenges of their adolescent. “He’s got an attitude,” “She’s so moody,” “I can’t get him to do anything” are just few of the items on a laundry list of complaints that often frustrate and confound parents. Ahh, then there are the consequences that seem futile. “He’s lost all his privileges and he doesn’t seem to care.” (Unless of course the consequence includes the phone!) Parents and teachers regularly communicate on the academics of adolescents, which often includes not turning in assignments, and comments as “She’s not living up to her potential” or “If this keeps up, he won’t graduate.” Adolescents can be mercurial, aloof, callous, and sensitive, which can seem to occur simultaneously.
It is said that an adolescent brain is going through profound changes. Anyone with an adolescent can experientially attest to that. But what I find compelling is the “Venn diagram” that IS the adolescent and their brain. Consider this: Children have an immature “orbitoprefrontal cortex” which means, among other things, they are not very good at controlling their emotions and/or good at decision-making skills (adults are generally good at these). Conversely, adults have a mature “mesolimbic system” meaning they can control, to a large extent, pleasure seeking drives and behaviors (children are generally poor at this). Adolescents are like children AND adults; poor at making good decisions and controlling emotions while also having adult pleasure-seeking drives.
This is not to say that all adolescents make poor decisions and give into peer-pressure. Rather, it is meant to illuminate how adolescents experience different decision-making processes compared to adults. The consequences of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex often manifest as difficulties with impulse control, an inaccurate gauge of risk versus reward, and poor decision-making. Therein lies the dilemma many adolescents and caregivers face. Often times, there is a cultural and/or familial expectation for adolescents to make the “right” decision, despite the underdevelopment of their prefrontal cortex. What was once believed to be stereotypical teenage rebellion may be due, in part, to an underdeveloped brain.
Considering this, and looking objectively, one may be able to take a step back and say to themselves, “That’s why they act the way they do.” Parents, counselors, and teachers should take comfort in the words of Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman, “How we see the world as a teenager is the consequence of a changing brain that’s right on schedule.” Parental patience and guidance can be the key to success during these turbulent times.