Published on Psychology Today
No one likes teenagers—not even their own parents. On the subway, you can often watch adults scurry to find other seats as soon as they spot a group of teenagers hop on the train. Parents dread these infamous years, where they’ve been warned to expect a glass of cheek with a splash of rashness, and a dash of drama. Teenagers are bound to hang out with friends you don’t like, hate your rules, hate you even more, and react with utter contempt when you try to correct their irresponsible and often impulsive behavior. Even the term “teenager” carries with it such a strong connotation of misgiving that I’ve heard mothers of much younger children describe their preschool-aged kids as “threenagers.”
So why is it so hard to have a teenager? Why is it so hard to be a teenager?
One reason why having a teenager might be so stressful is that teenagers engage in a lot of risky behavior—more than children or adults of any other age. Alcohol use and cigarette smoking typically begin during these years, along with lots of other risky behaviors, like unprotected sex and reckless driving. Teenagers don’t do these things because they’re dumb; in fact, research suggests that by the age of 16, teenagers are just as good as adults at estimating risks and knowing about their consequences. So it’s not that teenagers think more irrationally than adults do. Instead that seemingly irrational behavior might stem from the way they feel.
Recent brain research suggests that we all have two specific systems in the brain that might be responsible for the erratic behaviors we see in the teenage years. One of those systems controls the way we anticipate rewards. This system begins to mature around puberty, making rewards very salient to teenagers, which could explain the increase in sensation seeking during this time period. The other system is thought to be responsible for self-control, and unfortunately for parents, this system doesn’t fully develop until much later. Looking at the way these two systems mature is the key to understanding the trouble with teenage behavior: When you put them together, you get a teenager who is fully able to anticipate how taking risks might be rewarding, but who is not able to fully control their impulses. On top of that, the maturing reward system that’s likely responsible for increased sensation seeking is more active in the presence of peers. In other words, teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors in the presence of friends than when they are alone.
The bad news is, the offbeat timing of these two developing brain systems is completely normal, which means that having a teenager who is impulsive, dramatic, and peer obsessed is normal too. The good news is, your teenagers’ second brain system—the one that’s responsible for self-control—will reach maturity by their mid-20’s, so as your teenagers leave their teens, they will also leave behind their terrible teenage behaviors. In most cases, although teens are prone to engage in riskier behaviors than usual, it doesn’t mean that they will all engage in dangerous behaviors, but some indeed do. Every year, billions of taxpayer dollars are spent keeping our teens safe by educating them about the dangers of unprotected sex, drugs, and alcohol, with very little to show for it. The research described here suggests that some additional strategies might be needed.
Telling teens about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex is an important first step, but again, while teens might fully understand these dangers, they might also lack the self-control to keep themselves from engaging in them. This predicament makes it hard to parent a teenager, but it also makes it hard to be a teenager—an individual with an adult’s ability to feel a wide range of emotion, but an adolescent’s ability to manage it. Talking to teenagers about avoiding situations where they might be tempted to take dangerous risks might be one good way to go beyond simply talking to them about why things like sex, drugs, and alcohol could be dangerous. That, and of course reminding yourself that the teenage years and the problems that come with them are normal; like all other tumultuous periods of growth, the terrible teens will eventually pass, and your erratic teenager will become a far less dramatic adult who is fully able to both feel and control their impulses and emotions.