Blog 78. The teen brain–rebel or recruit?

A newborn’s brain immediately learns who his mother is, but a teen’s brain seems to busy itself with learning what his mother forbids.  We recognize that teens rebel.  But they also join, seeking meaning as recruits for cults or terrorists.  Our own military invites recruits at age 18—in fact, when I was young, the symbol of a male’s adulthood was his draft card, issued at age 18.  What’s going on in the teen brain, that one individual might be an unrestrained rascal and then become a disciplined soldier?

Scientific American published a feature article on the teen brain, a report that set my old brain to thinking.  Teens take unreasonable risks—in fact, despite widespread driver education, the major cause of teen deaths is auto accidents.  Insurance companies know this and set rates for young drivers accordingly.  Youth can’t rent cars before age 25.  We older folks have the impression that the interval of adolescence is growing with each generation.  It is now common for parents to support schooling through age 25; some children seem to remain dependent on their parents until age 35.  Is this indeed new?  Is this because there’s so much more to learn, or is it due to the high sugar content of the current youth diet?  Or is it due to absence of youth labor that was common when we white-heads were adolescents?

No, this is not a new trend.  Scientific American says the teen brain is not biology gone wrong, nor has it changed through succeeding generations.  Rather, research shows that the brain is changing throughout youth, reaching full maturity near age 24.  During development, the brain is growing new networks, making itself a very complex system.  Some regions of the brain become more specialized, while unused or poorly adapted connections between brain cells (neurons) are discarded.  It is the networking, then, that brings maturity.  But that’s only half of the story.

The limbic system (the hormone generator) ramps up starting at age 12 or even earlier.  That precocious pubescence is a new trend in recent generations.  According to the Scientific American article, the natural hormones make the adolescent brain seek novelty, try adventures, make external social connections, and explore new environments—and this happens in all mammals, including the neighbor’s noisy kids.  However, in previous generations of us humans, that adolescent blossoming happened a few years later.  Thus, there is now a span of at least a decade between the full onslaught of hormonal adventuring and the ultimate achievement of maturity.  This isn’t due to cell phones or TV or Facebook.  It’s a fundamental timing by biological  control.  Or lack of control, some might say.  It just takes time to form all those networks—learning through teaching and experience—and the hormonal system gets launched far ahead of the network development.

With biology in control, how do we alter the bad effects—the fact that teen deaths are due to auto accidents, homicide, and suicide in that order?  Teens are physically more healthy than the rest of the population, but Scientific American says serious illness and  death for teens are two to three times greater than for children.  What can we do to make protracted maturation a more gentle process?

Now I get to issue opinion, somewhat beyond the staid scientific statements.  Parents of teens should recognize that the adolescent brain is changing and the executive functions are still developing. Therefore, a teen’s strange behavior does not imply absence of future judgement or irresponsibility continuing to age eighty.  The challenge is to focus the emerging passion, creativity, and skills so the subsequent mature adult will be able to evaluate the expanse of data that comes with modern living.  Memorizing facts won’t be sufficient.  As a parent (or grandparent?), you are best to acknowledge what’s going on, use creative opportunities more than absolute freedom, and—above all—discuss these things with the adolescent child.

As I’ve said somewhere else in this series, if you can’t talk about it, you are powerless to change it.  Forbidden topics merit discussion.