The Teen Brain Myth

I often come across articles about how an incompletely developed brain accounts for the emotional problems and irresponsible behavior of teenagers. Is this true, or is it a myth?

It is true that teenagers, by virtue of their hormonal changes, are prone to be emotionally volatile, unpredictable, self-absorbed, and hypersensitive. However, the IMMATURE BRAIN that supposedly causes teen problems is nothing more than a myth. Most of the brain changes that are observed during the teen years lie on a continuum of changes that takes place over much of our lives.

In addition, some of these myths are based on studies of brain activity of teens as compared to adults. But snapshots of brain activities have nothing to do with causation. A person’s emotions, such as stress, continuously change brain physiology and development—as does diet, exercise, studying, and virtually all activities, let alone cultural influences. There is clear evidence that any unique feature that may exist in the teen brain is the result of social influences, rather than the cause of teen turmoil.

The teen brain fits conveniently into a larger myth, namely that teens are inherently incompetent and irresponsible. But teens in many cultures experience no turmoil whatsoever. I have seen teens from various backgrounds and socioeconomic levels act in exemplary ways—as have many adults. Perhaps one reason is that those who are successful at promoting responsibility think of young people as becoming adults, but only younger. When we treat teens as we treat adults, they almost immediately rise to the challenge.

Throughout most of recorded human history, the teen years were a transition to adulthood. Today’s parents should know that teens are not trying to break away from adults; rather, they are learning to become adults. Holding teenagers accountable by focusing on their becoming responsible—rather than aiming at obedience—will prove that teenagers can act responsibly.