Person to Person

The teenage brain: still under construction


He was age 18. Old enough to take on the world (or so he thought).  Yet young enough to perform a dozen dim-witted actions before the sun rose the next morning.

Of course, he thought he was magical. He could do no wrong. He knew it all. He was a smart kid. Way too smart to listen to any stupid rules his parents lay down for him. His parents weren’t bad. They were good people. They loved him. But they were an endless supply of warnings. And fears. And mistrust. Enough of that crap.

Tonight was his night. It was easy. He was with his best buddies, speeding along in his sparkling new BMW. Flooring the pedal for excitement; braking ever so subtly to take a drag.  It wasn’t until later that things got more complicated.

Later, after the screech of the brakes. Later, after the siren of the ambulance. Later, after the Jaws of Life pulled him out. Later, after he learned that his friend didn’t make it.

This story is every parent’s nightmare. Smart kids doing stupid things. Responsible kids daring each other to be irresponsible. Insightful kids displaying not an iota of insight.

What causes such maddening teenage behavior?

The teenage brain may seem like an adult brain. Even better than an adult brain. For sure, your kids are smarter, faster, stronger and even wiser than you in a myriad of ways.

But in other ways? Not so smart. If you have any doubt that teenage brains are not adult brains, just think back to your own teen years. Unless you were a very good kid (aka: a scared kid) you probably took chances you’d never take today.

An understanding of the construction of the adolescent brain may help explain the risky behavior they take, despite “knowing” better. The executive part of their brain (the frontal lobes) which is responsible for weighing choices, considering consequences, assessing probability and ultimately making decisions has less myelin on them then adult brains.

What does this mean? Research suggests that, as smart as they are, teens don’t access their frontal lobes as frequently as adults do. Parents’ lectures become background when competing with electric, adrenaline-filled, charged up activity. Boring for teens is mega bad. Their brains are wired to seek out thrills, court danger, take a dare, as they convince themselves that nothing bad is ever going to happen.

So, if you have raised a considerate, caring, well-mannered kid and now have a surly, rude alien being on your hands, know you are not alone. The more you lecture your teen, the more he (or she) will have a tendency to blow you off. Some do it defiantly (Get out of my face, ma). Some. sarcastically (Yeah, you always know best, ma). Others, passive aggressively (You’re right dad and then does as he pleases.)

As bright as the young people are today, there are still scads of things they do not know that adults have down pat. This is not their fault. They are “baby adults.” Knowledge can smooth the transition, but it is mostly time and life experiences that will guide young people into mature adulthood.

I do not intend to insult the intelligence of young people. Indeed, many of them are super smart and have a great deal of savoir faire. They are equipped with skills and self-confidence that one can only envy. Still, these kids have “aged out” of childhood without successfully transitioning to the social roles, decision-making and myriad responsibilities of adulthood.

We adults should not confuse looking like an adult, talking like an adult, even acting like an adult with being an adult.


Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice who works with individuals, families and couples to help them overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. You can reach her at Visit her website at