The Teenage Brain

I’ve spoken at several conferences in the last year or so where presenters were opining on the subject of the teenage brain. Their thesis was that features of the so-called “teenage brain” are largely responsible for the self-centered, irrational, moody, rebellious behavior now associated with adolescence.

In my estimation, the studies that purport to “prove” such a thesis are badly done. Besides, the thesis is contradicted by present evidence, the historical record, and teens in other cultures—specifically, cultures that we Americans refer to as “third world.”

There is no compelling evidence to the effect that the teen brain is any different today than it was in the 1950s, when the brilliantly intuitive Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, proposed (on the basis of much observational evidence) that teens as young as twelve were very capable of rational, logical thought. Nor is there compelling evidence that the teen brain is any different today than it was in the 1830s, when Alexis de Toqueville praised the trustworthiness, dependability, and work ethic of American teens in his masterwork Democracy in America.

Today, there are plenty of young American teenagers who are responsible, truthful, trustworthy, hard-working, obedient, and respectful. I count my five teenage grandchildren among them (and I hold my grandkids to high standards). If the thesis is to be believed, then teens who fit the above description do not have normal teen brains. It is, therefore, the odd brain that produces proper behavior.

In third-world cultures, teens do not have the luxury of acting spoiled and entitled. Therefore, they do not. They are hard-working, responsible, trustworthy, and so on. I have seen the teens in question. I have spent time with them. They are charming. An acquaintance of mine who recently spent a good amount of time teaching school in Nigeria, reported to me that discipline in junior high and high school is not an issue.

Those teens who act like the world should revolve around them and cater to their every whim, who overflow with disdain for adults are products of their upbringing (a nod to the occasional child who is raised right and goes wrong). It is, I realize, comforting for their parents to think that the behavior in question has nothing to do with them, that it’s a matter of neurons that haven’t yet wired and lobes that do not yet have enough blood vessels, but the longer these parents stick their heads in those warm sands, the more remote becomes the opportunity to turn things around. Taking responsibility for something and self-blame are horses of two entirely different colors. The former is empowering; the latter is paralyzing.

Besides, no matter the age of the person in question, his or her brain can be re-trained. It may be close to impossible to teach a 13-year-old dog new tricks, but it is far from impossible to do so with a 13-year-old human.

Copyright 2014, John K. Rosemond

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