There's a reason why teenagers act the way they do

Parents will benefit from understanding why teenagers act the way they do.
Published May 14 2015
Updated May 14 2015

If your loving, kind, considerate child has changed, seemingly overnight, into a not so lovable teenage stranger, the reason may be out of your — and your teen's — control. Take it from Dr. Frances Jensen, a neurologist, neuroscientist and single mom who went through it, having raised two boys and survived, but only after immersing herself in the scientific research on brain development in 13- to 25-year-olds.

"I wanted to know what was going on with my two teenage sons who, over what seemed like a month, morphed into aliens I no longer recognized," joked Jensen, who is also chairwoman of neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jensen found that the brain of an adolescent or teenager is not the same as an adult brain "just with fewer miles on it," she likes to say. After an exhaustive review of medical and scientific research she learned that the brain is only about 80 percent developed by the time we reach adolescence and young adulthood.

The data was so enlightening and helpful that she wrote a book about it (with Amy Ellis Nutt) called The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (HarperCollins Books, January 2015).

Jensen spoke with the Tampa Bay Times from her home in Philadelphia about her research and her book, a New York Times bestseller.

So what's going on in the brain that seems to make the teen years so frustrating?

Teenagers make much more sense when you understand that the frontal lobes of the brain, the part responsible for judgment, impulse control, mood and emotions, is the last part to fully develop. It happens around age 25 to 30. So the brain just doesn't know how to regulate itself yet. That's why they seem very smart at times and at other times will make bad decisions, act on impulse and take uncalculated risks. They're like a Ferrari with weak brakes. That can be a big problem when they start driving and are exposed to drugs and alcohol, and if they don't have enough adult supervision to temper some of those risky behaviors.

Are you saying that teens aren't fully responsible for bad behavior?

Not quite. But they don't have the machinery yet to be fully accountable for all their actions, especially when risk-taking is involved.

Are our expectations sometimes too high?

Look at a teen and they look like an adult. They are wearing adult-sized clothes, but that doesn't mean they are grown up. We have to be mindful of that as parents. Remember, their brain is only 80 percent there.

Summer can be a scary time for parents of teens. How did you get through it with your sons?

It can be a wonderful time if you plan for it. Spend some time together. Have meals together. Take a weekend trip together away from home. Let them see how you get things done, how you handle problems. Help them get a job, paid or volunteer, that gives them some responsibility. Ask what they observe, listen to their observations, work through problems together. Connect with them. Don't alienate your teen, don't drift apart, don't be angry all the time. Above all, it's not okay for teens to be left at home alone all day, every day, especially with the Internet. That's a recipe for trouble.

Any final words of wisdom?

"Because I told you so" gets you nowhere. Kids like proof, data. My book lays out the science behind why kids do what they do. Also, count to 10 (or more) before you explode; talk to them calmly and have some empathy. Your teen is probably upset and scared, too. Remember, you're the adult and your frontal lobes are all on-line. Act like it.

Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]