I was taking the dog for a walk just as the school day ended at the local high school. I noticed the small coupe drive by after it passed me and was pulling away in the distance. The boy in the passenger seat had his hand dangling out of the window.
“Great,” I sneered to myself. “High school boy … smoking.”
My dog stopped suddenly to sniff and look around in the air, at something invisible to me. I noticed something floating in the breeze. At first it looked like the blooms that fly off trees in the spring. ‘That doesn’t make sense this time of year,’ I thought. I looked again.
Bubbles. Dozens of bubbles were bouncing on the wind.
I smiled to myself and shook my head. Once again, Jaletta, you assumed the worst.
That boy wasn’t enjoying a cigarette in the car on the way home from school. He was dangling some kind of small wand out the window and leaving a trail of bubbles.
Before we even have a teen living in our house, we hear the parenting tales from older friends or the horror stories on the news. We begin to assume that teens are wreaking havoc on society — drinking, driving, and texting monsters. They are bullying each other in the hallways and online. They are getting pregnant before they can even drive. They are surly and strong willed.
Sure, some of that is true, for some teens. But not all and not all the time.
I realized that when I see a beer can on the shoulder of the road leading to the high school, I assume a student tossed it there. But it could be the hunters who hike into the woods in the county property nearby, far too close to the high school for my taste.
When I see someone drive by too fast, I first assume it is a teen. But, where I live, it could easily be a NASCAR driver or pit crew member.
Teens may be charged with underage drinking. They may get speeding tickets. They may, sadly, get into deadly accidents.
But they don’t have exclusive rights to law-breaking. We adults are guilty of that, as well.
It is unfair to assume the worst of anyone, but maybe it is especially unfair to teens.
They are not fully formed. They have years of growth and maturity ahead of them. We may be assuming the worst of them simply because their best is ahead of them.
It gets confusing because they often look, and periodically sound, like adults. But experts say their brains will not be fully formed until the age of 25. The prefrontal cortex is the final area of the human brain to mature — and that’s where we really plug into our brain power.
“The frontal lobe is often called the CEO, or the executive of the brain,” says Jay Giedd, M.D., a practicing Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Chief of Brain Imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health. “It’s involved in things like planning and strategizing and organizing, initiating attention and stopping and starting and shifting attention. It’s a part of the brain that most separates man from beast, if you will.”
Or man from teen? It may seem sometimes that teens and parents aren’t speaking the same language, but they may not even be functioning as the same species in that moment.
Dr. Giedd adds that “(It’s) not that the teens are stupid or incapable of (things). It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built.”
Experts often describe the teen brain as not yet properly wired. The nerve cells that connect the teen’s frontal lobes aren’t moving fast enough.
“You think of them as these surly, rude, selfish people,” said Frances Jensen, a Harvard Medical School scientist who is speaking from research done in the lab and in her own home, as the mother of two teenage boys. “Well, actually, that’s the developmental stage they’re at. They aren’t yet at that place where they’re thinking about — or capable, necessarily, of thinking about the effects of their behavior on other people. That requires insight.”
Which they don’t yet have. What they do have is a brain that reacts to its environment — so if they send in nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and other substances, the brain soaks that up, stores it for a few days, and may even learn to like it too much.
“Addiction has been shown to be essentially a form of ‘learning,’” Ms. Jensen told an NPR reporter. If potent psychoactive drugs enter a brain snapping with new connectors, those substances are “tapping into a much more robust habit-forming ability that adolescents have, compared to adults.”
Sometimes we are justified in making assumptions about teens. Some of them may be making poor choices or behaving impulsively. Others are just blowing bubbles.
It may help teens if we adults, as parents, teachers, coaches, or others who interact with teens, remember to use all of our brain function and insight, recognizing when we are impulsive — making assumptions about them. We need to guide them wisely, role modeling how to use a fully formed frontal lobe.
Jaletta Albright Desmond is a self-syndicated columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in Davidson with her husband and two daughters. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org