What Was My Kid Thinking?

If you’ve never said it out loud, I’m sure you’ve at least thought it: “What was my kid thinking?” It’s a common question for many parents who live with adolescents in their homes. Typically, the question comes in response to some puzzling or irresponsible action on the part of the teenager.

You can partially blame this on the teen brain. Honestly. Blame the brain. If your teenager has at times made really poor choices, it is partly because the brain won’t fully develop until your son or daughter hits their mid-twenties.

On the outside, teens appear to be nearly grown up. But a vital part of the teen brain that plays critical roles in assessing risks, understanding consequences, and decision-making functions more like a child than an adult. The prefrontal cortex is partly responsible for self-control, judgment, emotional regulation, organization, and event planning. But just like everything else about teenagers, their brains are works in progress.

Your teen’s brain is in the process of rewiring itself. It’s busy weeding out unneeded connections so that it can operate efficiently and maturely. Further, while the parts of the brain responsible for sensation seeking are getting turned on in big ways, the prefrontal cortex lags behind in maturity. Talk about bad timing! This means that the teen brain appears to be wired for risk-taking!

Knowing what’s going on in the teen brain can lead some parents to shelter their kids and pull back from allowing their kids to make decisions, fearing the potentially life-altering consequences of making poor decisions. Believe me, I understand the impulse, as teen brain science isn’t particularly comforting to parents.

But here’s a part of the brain science that helps me move beyond the fear: Kids must have opportunities to exercise their brains and make decisions so that the parts of the prefrontal cortex that regulate judgment, self-control, and assess risk and consequences can mature to adulthood!

So I vote for helping your teen’s brain to mature now by allowing him or her to make age-appropriate decisions while you can still provide encouragement, coaching, and a measure of safety. Your teen is going to make some poor choices along the way, and you may still wonder, “What was my kid thinking?” But at least now you’ll have some clues.

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Jim Burns

Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the President of HomeWord and the Executive Director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. Jim speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 30 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage and Closer. Jim and his wife, Cathy live Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca and Heidi.

  • About HomeWord

    HomeWord helps families succeed by creating Biblical resources that build strong marriages, confident parents, empowered kids and healthy leaders. Founded by Jim Burns and supported by Doug Fields, HomeWord and Azusa Pacific University have partnered to form The HomeWord Center for Youth and Family. Learn More »

  • About Azusa Pacific University

    APU is a leading Christian college ranked as one of the nation’s best by U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review. Located near Los Angeles in Southern California, APU is a Christian university offering associate’s, bachelor’s, master's, doctoral, and degree completion programs, both on campus and online. Learn More »

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