How to Understand a Teenager’s Thinking

How to Understand a Teenager’s Thinking

Don’t understand a teenager’s thinking? When a child grows into their early teens, many parents ask themselves, “What am I doing wrong?” or “How did those traits get in my kid?” and finally conclude, “It must be her (or his) father’s (or mother’s) influence.” The kid is unstable.

Teenagers—The Good

  • They can be clever.
  • Teenagers can be accomplished.
  • They can even be responsible at times.
  • Think logically.
  • Think more abstractly and understand complex concepts.
  • See problems from different perspectives.
  • Enhanced ability to learn new skills.

Teenagers—The Bad

  • Reckless—skateboarding off a house roof sounds like an awful idea to an adult.
  • Dramatic and irrational—scream for no apparent reason.
  • Self-conscious—everybody around is watching him or her—always.
  • Increased capacity for anxiety and fear—calm reasoning is an elusive concept—I’m sure my teacher hates me.
  • Pleasure and rewards are sought without judgment—skateboarding off a house roof will really impress my friends
  • Peer approval is very important—see skateboarding example, and maybe jumping off a bridge would be very cool too.
  • Higher propensity for addictions.

The Teenage Brain

Different regions of the brain mature at very dissimilar rates and is only 80% developed in adolescents. The brain circuit for processing fear develops far ahead of the region for reasoning and control. Teens have a brain that is wired with enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety but underdeveloped for calm reasoning, planning and judgment. It seems odd that with increased anxiety that teens are risk takers. Part of the answer is due to the brain’s reward center, which also matures early. Studies show that teenager’s brain exhibited exaggerated responses to medium and large rewards compared to children and adults. The strong desires for reward help drive a teenager’s risky behavior. A teenager may try dangerous activities because they are seeking a buzz to satisfy that reward center.

Raging in a teen’s brain simultaneously are anxieties, fears, and amplified reward seeking. Hormones are also believed to contribute to the mental and emotional storm. Teenagers possess an emotional accelerator and little in the way of mental brakes. The paradox helps explain the top three killers of teenagers are accidents, homicide and suicide. Control, in the manner of judgment, decision-making, and reason, are not fully developed until somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30, much later than once believed.

Why Did Evolution Play This Dirty Trick On Teens?

Fear, as a primitive form of learning, allowed humans to form associations between events and cues that may predict danger. Without fear, we would have been a meal for predators long ago. Adults learn to suppress learned fear associations, but teens had trouble learning that a cue that was previously linked to something aversive was now safe. Considering adolescence to be a time of exploration when greater independence is developed, an enhance capacity for fear could provide a survival advantage. This same gap in brain development has also been found in many mammalian species.


Note: A subject touched upon in Three Remain inspired this topic.

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