Teens aren’t grown up just yet

They may look like adults, but the part of the brain that controls impulses isn’t mature until early 20s

Special to The TribuneMarch 25, 2014 


Your teenage son looks like a grown man. He’s inches taller than his father, and his voice has turned a deep, resonant bass. But his behavior is another matter. He makes rash decisions, drives way too fast and adorns himself in ways that make his parents cringe.

That’s because his brain is developing more slowly than the rest of his body. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and UCLA conducted a decade-long study of normal brain development. They found that the frontal lobe, the area responsible for understanding future consequences, making wise decisions and controlling impulses, doesn’t reach maturity until the early 20s.

Immature brains have fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected. As a result, they’re easily influenced by the environment and susceptible to erratic behavior.

This may explain the puzzling contradiction of adolescence. Teens are at their physical prime. Yet their mortality rates soar. Rates of death by injury for people between the ages of 15 and 19 are six times those seen in youths ages 10 to 14. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that teens are four times more likely than older drivers to be involved in a car crash and three times more likely to die in one. Crime rates are highest among teen boys, and rates of drug and alcohol abuse are high when compared with other age groups.

Adolescents also are more susceptible to the effects of drugs and alcohol. Frances Jensen and David Urion, physicians at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, discovered that adult brain cells recovered more quickly from alcohol exposure than younger brain cells.

Jensen said in Harvard Magazine: “What you did on the weekend is still with you during that test on Thursday. You’ve been trying to study with a self-induced learning disability.”

The implications for parents are clear. Teens aren’t intentionally irritating. They’re still forming into the adults they’ll eventually be. They say they want independence, but they still need lots of supervision from caring, attentive adults.

It’s important to keep teens as safe as possible because they can’t always be trusted to do it themselves. And finally, they won’t be this age forever. They will grow up and become fantastic adults.

Be there with open arms when they do.


• Keep communication open. Be available to listen to your teens. Don’t overreact to what they’re telling you. Ask for their opinions. You may not like or agree with what they’re saying. At least you know what’s going on.

• Set clear guidelines. Be steadfast on the issues that really matter. Then be willing to back up your rules with swift and appropriate consequences. Kids are more likely to follow rules if they know you mean business.

• Pick your battles. Don’t explode over every little annoyance. Remember that blue hair grows back and messy rooms have doors. Those issues pale in comparison to a car crash or drug overdose.

• Direct teens’ energy. Involve adolescents in exciting, high-intensity activities. Take them ziplining in Santa Margarita. Get them involved in sports or outdoor adventures. Encourage a summer job. You’ll keep kids busy and relatively safe.

• Talk about drugs and alcohol. Studies show that kids whose parents discuss the dangers of drugs with them are 50 percent less likely to use. Bring up the topic on a regular basis. Make your opinions and expectations well known.

• Educate yourself. Things have changed since you were a teen. Learn the current names of drugs and what adolescents are taking. You’ll be better prepared, and you’ll have more credibility with your child.

• Express your undying love. Yes, teens can be frustrating. But you love them to your very core. Let them know you adore them. Nothing they do alters that fact.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit http://lindalewisgriffith.com.

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