Search This Blog

07 December 2011

'The New Science of the Teenage Brain' by David Dobbs - National Geographic, October 2011

What can I say?  My first reaction was uncharitable.  'They found a teenage brain!....Perhaps they are all sharing it?'  Obviously, after some thought and deep probing I will admit that at least the teenagers I regularly come into contact with can be intelligent, often in creative ways. When asked whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, my children spend more time actively defending (or creating) their answers than it would take to empty the dishwasher; the same goes for clothing choice, exam results, homework, music practice or even taking a shower.  On the other hand, they are unable to take a matching pair of socks out of a dryer that contains only whites.

Done venting, back to the article...

In essence, the teenage brain is indeed half baked like parents have always suspected.  This results in lower fear and greater emphasis on pleasure versus pain and\or deferment.  Teenagers can assess risk and calculate weight, velocity and braking (reaction) time just like a grown up when tested alone.  Pleasure, such as impressing friends, however trumps caution.  The pleasure or kudos of driving fast to impress a car full of friends outweighs the risk of redecorating the highway with car and body parts.  This same disregard for real risk (as we calculate it) makes it possible for them to take the risk to leave the nest and explore the world.  So in terms of survival of the species they are ready to go out, conquer and procreate without noting the consequences.

Teenagers are growing new wiring within their brains.  This is like an internal version of the teenage body, growing quickly but unevenly.  The same body that swishes a three pointer will stub its toe on a door frame.  Some things like common sense have to catch up the same way teenage bodies catch up with their shoe size.  Teenagers are also mentally more flexible, perhaps a bit too much so .  Adolescents and their brains  will try new things like technology, the exploration of the next valley over or eating something new and interesting. Unfortunately all this flexibility is sometimes fatal.  Consistency and judgement come with maturity and experience.

It is comforting to know that my children's erratic, occasionally dangerous and absolutely  irritating behavior has a neurological cause shared with other teenagers and that it probably serves some purpose in the long tail of human history (or so some scientists assure readers and writers of National Geographic).  But as a mother in the here and now I have to agree with my parenting guru, Jean Kerr, who said, 'I never wanted to know what that noise was, I just wanted it to STOP.


  1. hi again miriam,
    ditto ditto ditto. i have 3 grown kids. you never stop worrying about your kids. but if you give parenting your best shot, then their adulthood will help ease your worries.
    i can remember making some crazy decisions in my teens and early 20's. so i can agree with the article. most of us survive during the wiring of our brains, thank heavens.
    finding a condom in the laundry of your teenage son is the ultimate good news/bad news day in parenting.
    keep up the joy,

    1. I am officially terrified of doing laundry.

  2. Hey there =)

    Wow its the same all over the world isn't it. For me I think what helps the most is to be friends with them, by connecting with your own teen inside [a duster can be really handy].
    The constant challenge, is to keep the balance between these 2 rolls, parent & friend.

  3. I try to keep reminding myself that "I am the grown up"! Balance I hope happens after I have had a cup of coffee.