Sometimes when I talk to my teenagers, it seems like my words bounce off a wall and back to me. No matter how many different ways I try to explain the same information, we are speaking different languages. There are actually physiological reasons for why teens’ brains might not be able to think the same way as adults. For one thing, the pre-frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until a person is in their mid to late twenties. This is the part of the brain where logic and reasoning occur. So when we say, “What were you thinking?”, it’s ironic because in some ways they’re not quite thinking up to par. Their decisions fall short not only because they have limited experiences to draw from, but also because biologically they are “in process”.
The neurohormone that our brain releases when taking risks or experiencing pleasure is called dopamine. Teenagers require more dopamine than an adult to receive the same rush, which makes it easier for them to try new things. This is a necessary at this age when they are being required to take risks with so many new experiences. The more the dopamine is released, the stronger the brain pathways become. When risky behavior blazes pathways and they become stronger, while weaker pathways are being pruned from less use, it’s likely the at-risk behavior will continue.
The nerve insulator, called myelin, allows neural messages to be transported quicker to different regions of the brain. In teenagers, the myelin covering is still under construction in the pre-frontal and frontal cortex. This means that information travels slower in this critical region. Yet, teen brains have more plasticity, or ability to form new connections. This means that their brains crave stimulation and addictive tendencies can take root and form stronger connections more easily.
As parents and educators, what are we to do? First, we need to be patient with our teenagers and continue to invest in their lives. In our presentations, we ask them questions to get them to make the connections themselves. Just because they have seemingly ignored us, it’s not entirely personal, even though it can feel that way.
Because of teens inability to moderate their negative behavior, or foresee future consequences, they will need us to hold firm boundaries steady on their behalf. Since their ability to reason is hindered, avoid arguments, and focus on finding common goals.
We will have to model the behavior we hope to see in them and teach them through our life experiences. When words fail, make time to do things with them to connect. Spend the time necessary to build your relationship with them, just hanging out, showing interest in what’s important to them. Though it can feel like a losing battle at times, consistent fostering will eventually pay off.
Most importantly, don’t give up – this is my advice to myself as well. In the end, our message will get through even if it takes them more time to compute.