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.