Teenagers Driving You Crazy? It’s a Good Thing

Teenagers are making the adults in their lives crazy. And not just in your house. If it’s any comfort, it’s happening all over the world. They’re making bad decisions – like skipping out of school in the middle of the day when they know they’re going to get caught. They’re taking risks that make no logical sense – like hosting a party at home when their parents are out of town. And their priorities are all out of whack – like quitting gymnastics or basketball or something they’ve always loved to just hang out with their friends and do, well . . . nothing.
The mainstream view of adolescent behavior looks at incidents like these as the product of brains that haven’t quite finished maturing. We now know that the brain remains plastic (or malleable) in many ways well into our 20s. Among the important ways in which the brain continues to grow and organize itself in the teen years is in the area of synaptic pruning. Information flows from one nerve cell to another across synapses. The more heavily used synapses get stronger. Those that don’t get used very often fade away. In the process, the brain becomes faster, more efficient, and more complex. This helps to explain why practice makes perfect (you’re strengthening and making permanent certain neural pathways), and why learning a new language later in life is so hard (the synapses you need for the task withered away in your teen years because you didn’t use them then).
The brain’s reorganization takes time to accomplish, and time to adjust to. We who have been living with our brains for a lot longer have grown used to how they work (for better, and for worse). But teenagers are still trying to figure their own brains out, brains that are in the process of changing, strengthening some neural pathways and discarding others.
To many, this story of brain development explains the impulsivity, risk taking, poor decision making, and similar traits we see in teens: their brains haven’t stopped changing, and they haven’t figured out how to use them yet. In this view, adolescents drive the adults in their lives crazy because their brains aren’t quite right yet. “What were you thinking?!” we ask teenagers, when what we mean is “You weren’t thinking correctly.”
The “brain-in-progress” theory tends to make us view our kids as broken, or at least not fully put-together. When they make what we see as bad decisions, they are making mistakes, mistakes that they would not make if their brains were better. And this affects how we treat them as well: we limit the kinds of decisions that teenagers are allowed to make, the places they are allowed to go, the people they are allowed to be with, on the theory that we have to make their decisions for them, because their brains-in-progress can not be trusted to make the “right” ones.
But I always feel as though there is something fundamentally wrong about thinking about adolescents this way (though I have done it often). For one thing, it absolves kids of a lot of responsibility for their actions. It can too easily lead us to say, “It’s not their fault. They can’t help themselves.” This doesn’t seem right, when adolescence is the time in their lives when we want our kids to take more responsibility for their actions.
But more importantly, the brain-in-progress view shortchanges kids. It sees the high school years as a time of waiting—until they can emerge as fully-formed humans. It encourages their parents and teachers to micromanage their lives so that they never have a chance to make a bad decision. That’s not how we want to look at this important time of life. We’re always telling kids, “Your life starts now!” We want them to make some bad decisions, and to fail, because if they don’t, they will never understand how failure is an essential part of the learning process.
Fortunately, brain science is catching up with teenagers and revealing the value of the crazy-making years. It turns out that teenagers are doing exactly what years of evolution have designed them to do. In broad terms, the crazy-making behaviors tend to fall into only a few categories: sensation seeking, risk taking, and intense social behavior. And though these can get kids into trouble, they are also crucial to both brain and personal development. Without them, kids aren’t going to reach their fullest potential. They need to take chances, search out the new and novel, and build strong relationships with their peers. They need to do these things–not to annoy the adults in their lives, but to successfully move from the simple, relatively demand-free world of the home, to the infinitely more stressful and complicated settings where they will spend the rest of their lives.
For example, that constant Instagram checking and Facebook updating? That’s intense social behavior, and the expanded social networks that it creates is going to make our teenagers safer, more prosperous, happier adults. And what about the teenager who hosts a party when her parents go out of town? As neuroscientist B.J. Casey notes, risk taking is hard-wired in teens, because over the past hundred thousand years or so, it has given humans an adaptive edge. Or, as Vasser psychologist Abigail Baird puts it, “The more you seek novelty and take risks, the better you do.” We don’t need to look into the distant past to imagine this being true. We rightly celebrate risk takers every day. We just call them by different names, like “visionary” and “entrepreneur.”
One added benefit of seeing teenagers this way is that instead of restricting their privileges and responsibilities, we can give them some of the freedom that they so desire. When we understand that adolescents are actually functioning exactly as they should be, we can likely relax a little when we come face to face with them each day.
And when we parents and educators respect adolescents for the human beings that they are, and the job they are doing, we inevitably find that they don’t make us nearly as crazy as they once did.