Do Teen Brains Cause Reckless Behavior?

The latest issue of Scientific American Mind has a great article about the teen brain, challenging many of our current thoughts about our young adolescents. Many recent studies support the notion that teenagers’ brains are somehow inept at dealing with challenges in the same way as adults, and that this underlies their often reckless behavior. I have written posts in the past summarizing some of this work.

The Myth of the Teen Brain

In his article, The Myth of the Teen Brain, Robert Epstein makes a compelling argument that the majority of these previous studies are all wet. Epstein is a psychologist who has studied this issue for many years, across hundreds of cultures.

He cites one study of 186 pre-industrial societies in which teens spend most of their time with adults and have few of the problem behaviors that we Americans associate with adolescence. In fact, the majority of these societies don’t even have a word for adolescence – teens are not distinguished from adults.

The Battle between Hormones and Culture

Treating teens like adults makes a lot of sense from a biological perspective. Like it or not, teens are of reproductive age. If they lived a few hundred years ago, they would likely be parenting children of their own. If their brains were really ‘programmed’ for recklessness then it’s unlikely that the human race would have survived. It is only the rules of our society that have made teen parenthood abnormal. This is, of course, not to condone teen pregnancy but to realize that the problem stems from man-made cultural issues, not from nature-made biological ones.

The Consequences of Restricting Behavior

Another statistic that Epstein points out is that American teens have 10 times as many restrictions as adults and twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons! He points out that prior to 1800 there were really no laws restricting teen behavior; by 1900 there were about 20; and by the year 2000, there were over 140 laws defining what teens can and cannot do.

This, Epstein argues, is the real problem. He claims that we artificially extend teens childhood by treating them like children. We are also placing them in situations where they primarily only socialize with each other – when we should be socializing them to be adults.

He claims that all of the previous studies showing that teens’ brains are ‘inferior’ to adults’ brains is because the behaviors we impose on them make their brains different – and not that their brain differences cause their behaviors.

Anyone that went to college with someone who was a raised in a restricted environment knows how rebellious they can be. At the risk of offending readers, my Catholic School friends were the wildest kids around. Too strict or restrictive of an up-bringing pushes many teens to go hard the other way. Dr. Epstein suggests that our over-restrictive society may be behind tragedies like Littleton and Virginia Tech.

The question then, is ‘Are all the restrictions on teens necessary in today’s society or have we gone too far?’ Do all the rules make matters better or worse?

Protection or Exposure?

Many Europeans laugh at us Americans for our protective attitudes, especially around alcohol and sex. We think little of exposing teens to violence on TV and in video games, but we cringe at letting them see a sex scene. What’s worse, growing up to have sex or shooting someone?

Also in Europe, teens are exposed to alcohol for a couple of years before legally learning to drive. They don’t have the taboo associated with a glass of beer or wine and don’t have as many problems associated with alcohol abuse. In America, we make sure that they already have their car keys in hand when they go out for their first legal drinking binge. Seems a little backward to me.

Lighten Up?

There are good arguments on both sides of the debate. As parents, we need to take a hard look at the rules we impose on our own teens. Of course, we need to stay within the laws of our country. But we can ask ourselves if all our household rules are for their own long-term good. Do our rules protect them at the expense of delaying their abilities to become independent and think for themselves? Will you feel comfortable with your teen’s ability to handle adversity when they step out of the protection of your home? Maybe if we stop treating them like children they will stop acting like them.

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