This is Your Brain on Teenagers
Thursday, March 7, 2013 • 11:11am
I have three. For several years I had one. Then, just like that, on a birthday, I had three.
I am talking about teenagers.
They stay up all night. They sleep all day. They wear headphones and stagger like the undead in search of junk food, abandoning dirty clothes and empty soda cans in their wake.
They ask for money instead of permission. They argue and demand explanations.
They escape to their rooms.
I should have seen it coming. For example, it used to be that my daughter politely ignored my sage advice as an adult and parent. Now she visibly rolls her eyes and audibly snorts in displeasure from the back of her throat whenever I interject.
Experts say this is the first sign of adolescence. It is called teenage asthma. It quickly leads to slamming doors.
Contrary to conventional wisdom that somewhere around 12 or 13 years of age zombie parasites take over the brains of maturing children, new studies by researchers, who are continually looking to blame science for the inexplicable behavior of their kids, indicate that the teenage brain may not be fully developed.
This makes a lot of sense to me. It certainly explains why my kids are convinced I am a doofus.
The gray matter experts have long identified the frontal cortex as the area of the brain responsible for reasoning. The center allows us to think before we act and respond to situations rationally and with considered judgment.
Unfortunately, this area of the brain does not fully mature well into adulthood; and in some cases, not at all. And of course, the frontal cortex it is highly influenced by shots of tequila and polka music.
But enough about me.
Pity my poor teenagers. As they patiently wait years on end in front of the TV waiting for their frontal cortex to develop, they are called to action by a swifter developing center of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala—short for oh my god my dad is such a loser—controls responses to emotional stimuli, like getting no for an answer.
To make matters worse, adolescent brainpower is further hijacked by rapidly developing neural pathways. These communication links are optimized at an incredible rate among young adults, and explains why teens are able to text so fast under the dinner table.
As these expanding web-like pathways form to connect disparate areas of the cognitive brain, they are continually interrupted by activities that require significant amounts of concentration. Activities like homework.
Such forced focus can significantly retard the brain’s ability to simultaneously spend quality time Skyping with friends while listening to music and catching up on viral YouTube videos.
At least, this is how my wireless teenage daughter explains it to me. Apparently writing history papers these days requires all five senses and the use of every electronic device in the house. Mono-tasking is vastly overrated she says. It is so last century.
Sadly, given advancement in technology, it actually was last century. When I was her age, all I had was a radio to interrupt me, and I couldn’t take it into the library to research and pen my history report on how the Industrial Revolution transformed the 20th Century.
Being an understanding and technically hip dad, I told her that if she does well on her history paper I would buy her a toaster. This is when I discovered teenage asthma.
Add to this stuttered brain development an explosive mix of surging hormones, and it is no wonder that chaperones never go out of favor.
Anyway, while this view of teen behavioral development is an interesting theory, it does little to protect teenagers from their thoughtless, mercurial behavior.
The reason you have to be home by ten is because your brain is not fully developed. I don’t know, maybe this reasoning works on the teens of cranial MRI technicians; it does little for the emotionally guided adolescents who have now taken over my house.
Here is another frontal cortex phrase I have found to be completely useless in connecting with my teenagers: You know, I was a teenager once too . . .
I didn’t realize how silly this sounded until I said it out loud in front of a mirror one day.
The problem is, although I have some difficulty remembering what I did yesterday, I remember vividly what it was like to live without a well-tuned brain guided by parents who were necessarily out of touch because they were born long before loud music was invented.
But, as much as I can relate to an underdeveloped teenage brain, I think it is best to appear out of touch and blindly ignorant of their situation.
As an adult in the 21st century, it is actually pretty easy to do.