By Karen Sheehan, MD
Our country is so divisive right now it is hard to see how we will work through it. Every issue is “us” versus “them” with no middle ground of “we”. It often seems that we no longer even share the same language. However, as a pediatrician and mother of a former teenager, I submit that we do share at least one phrase. No matter what one’s race, ethnicity, or political affiliation, every parent has hollered at their teen at least once during their adolescence: “What were you thinking?”
The fact is that teens weren’t thinking—at least in the way we do as adults. Although our understanding of adolescent brain development is still in its infancy, we now know that adolescents process and react to the world differently than us.
Our brains develop from back to front. For example, around age one year, the back of the head cerebellum (which coordinates motor function) matures, and most children learn to walk around that time. In adolescence, the amygdala, a walnut-sized organ deep inside the brain, controls emotion and feeling, and is fired up during this period of development. The prefrontal cortex, which sits behind the eyes, controls rational thought, but this area doesn’t fully mature until much later—around the mid-twenties! This doesn’t mean you can’t have a reasonable conversation with your teen until they are done with college, but it does mean when they are excited or stressed, they may have a hard time thinking beyond the here and now. Because the teeter totter of their brain between emotional and rational thought often tips toward emotion, adolescents see the world differently than us. Teens often need bigger rewards to feel sated which contributes to their tendency toward risky behavior.
The paradox of this, of course, is the time you would most like to throttle your teen is the time they need you the most. It is part of normal development for teens to want to spend time with their friends, but they want to spend time with their supportive parents too. It reminds me a little of toddlers learning to walk—they take a step or two forward on their own but they quickly check to make sure you are still there. Teens are the same way—they want to begin to make their own way in the world, but they will do much better if they know their biggest cheerleader has their back.
Adolescents’ behavior is partially biology but there is also no doubt that their brain development is enhanced in a nurturing and supportive environment. Our role as caring adults is to help get them safely to adulthood so they can be their best self.
Maybe there is something on which we can all agree.
Dr. Karen Sheehan is an Attending Physician in Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Lurie Children’s. She serves as the Medical Director of the Injury Prevention & Research Center, and the Medical Director of Strengthening Chicago’s Youth, a Smith Child Health Research Program at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute.