Teenagers, Now Understood

Alison Gopnik:

“What was he thinking?” It’s the familiar cry of bewildered parents trying to understand why their teenagers act the way they do.

How does the boy who can thoughtfully explain the reasons never to drink and drive end up in a drunken crash? Why does the girl who knows all about birth control find herself pregnant by a boy she doesn’t even like? What happened to the gifted, imaginative child who excelled through high school but then dropped out of college, drifted from job to job and now lives in his parents’ basement?…

What happens when children reach puberty earlier and adulthood later? The answer is: a good deal of teenage weirdness. Fortunately, developmental psychologists and neuroscientists are starting to explain the foundations of that weirdness.

The crucial new idea is that there are two different neural and psychological systems that interact to turn children into adults. Over the past two centuries, and even more over the past generation, the developmental timing of these two systems has changed. That, in turn, has profoundly changed adolescence and produced new kinds of adolescent woe. The big question for anyone who deals with young people today is how we can go about bringing these cogs of the teenage mind into sync once again.

The first of these systems has to do with emotion and motivation. It is very closely linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty and involves the areas of the brain that respond to rewards. This is the system that turns placid 10-year-olds into restless, exuberant, emotionally intense teenagers, desperate to attain every goal, fulfill every desire and experience every sensation. Later, it turns them back into relatively placid adults.

Recent studies in the neuroscientist B.J. Casey’s lab at Cornell University suggest that adolescents aren’t reckless because they underestimate risks, but because they overestimate rewards—or, rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do. The reward centers of the adolescent brain are much more active than those of either children or adults. Think about the incomparable intensity of first love, the never-to-be-recaptured glory of the high-school basketball championship.

What teenagers want most of all are social rewards, especially the respect of their peers. In a recent study by the developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, teenagers did a simulated high-risk driving task while they were lying in an fMRI brain-imaging machine. The reward system of their brains lighted up much more when they thought another teenager was watching what they did—and they took more risks….

The second crucial system in our brains has to do with control; it channels and harnesses all that seething energy. In particular, the prefrontal cortex reaches out to guide other parts of the brain, including the parts that govern motivation and emotion. This is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making, that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification.

This control system depends much more on learning. It becomes increasingly effective throughout childhood and continues to develop during adolescence and adulthood, as we gain more experience. You come to make better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then correcting them. You get to be a good planner by making plans, implementing them and seeing the results again and again. Expertise comes with experience….

In contemporary life, the relationship between these two systems has changed dramatically. Puberty arrives earlier, and the motivational system kicks in earlier too.

At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.

The experience of trying to achieve a real goal in real time in the real world is increasingly delayed, and the growth of the control system depends on just those experiences. The pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl at the University of California, Berkeley, has a good metaphor for the result: Today’s adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.

 

 

 

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.docsdining.blogspot.com Jason

    I did similar research with prisoners a few years back. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kaleb

    “Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.”

    Haha… I would like to know where this ‘research’ came from. Adolescents often don’t do much of anything is a laughable statement. Any one that spends anytime with adolescents knows that they are constantly on the go between school, sports, athletics, youth groups, homework, jobs, clubs, and more. Also I enjoyed how all adolescents get lumped into this group. All the single parent households out there must have starving children since ‘they have little chance to practice basic skills like cooking’.

  • Luke Allison

    There IS sort of a mixture in any group. But I would say that even “on-the-go” students aren’t necessarily knowledgeable in practical matters. They know where they’re supposed to be, and when they’re supposed to be there, but mom and dad take care of a lot of the actual details of their lives.

    It all depends. I’ve seen single parent families where the kids do nothing but play video games and angrily stew, and single-parent families where the kids take care of everything in the house. It’s all different.

    Scot, did you see the first comment on the WSJ’s page?

    “This is the biggest load of psycho-babble I have ever read. The entire article is full of ridiculous notions and outright falsehoods. Teens behave the way they due because they are subject to the human condition, i.e. original sin. It is something that every human being, young and old, must attempt to overcome. Self-control is learned behavior that, unfortunately for our society, is no longer taught! Until parents take REAL responsibility for their children, nothing will change. Part of what is wrong with this country, is that people actually believe the kind of stuff that is printed is this article.”

    Yikes! I wonder if they change into a costume at night and fight the ivory tower elites as “Somewhat Typical Evangelical Man”?

  • http://missionaljourneyman.com Adam Gonnerman

    Purely anecdotal, but the teens I know who are “at-risk” are the ones who are A) idle and B) too distant from their parents. I’ve heard of jocks and cheerleaders getting themselves into trouble, of course, but of my daughter’s friends the most troubled are the ones from unstable homes and with few if any formal activities.

    It seems to me that most teens have PLENTY to do, from sports to school clubs to camps, and that these include responsibilities.

    Other than that, I agree with the intensity of rewards. My daughter’s drive to do some things (most of which I approve) has been off the charts.

  • T

    I’ve felt this is true for some time, even as a teen myself:

    “At the same time, contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared.”

    “Child-labor” has become a dirty word, and it deserves to be so in abusive or exploitative environments. But we’ve gone too far the other way. Most kids *want* to do something real and useful. They want to become truly self-sufficient. We need to help them and facilitate that intelligently and with both depth and safety. This is part of what is driving many homeschoolers.

  • James in Stumptown Oregon

    I pretty sure I dis-agree with much of this.

    In short….teenagers should not be marginalized by labeling them “Teenagers” That is a 65 year old term developed more as a marketing and target strategy.

    I think no-one has come even close to the problem with the **American Teenager** problem than Thomas Hines. Author of: The Rise & Fall of the American Teenager. Poor countries do not have a teen problem. Our “Teen” problem started at the time of the Industrial Revolution. When young people could no longer work side by side with older people. Then we gather them all up together and saturate them with their own age group. The idea is absolutely insane. Teens learning from teens for 10 years. It’s a miracle some of us got thru that system. The last 4000 years before 1920, you were considered an adult at age 12. Now you are hard pressed to find young people given responsibility in any significant areas under the age of 30. (exception: US Military & some Farm/Ranch kids).

    To understand this whole historic perspective on the decline of US Teens…go check out Thomas Hines’s Book.

    James Small
    EarthBridge Homes
    Portland/Mt.Hood, Oregon Coast

  • Luke Allison

    James: “To understand this whole historic perspective on the decline of US Teens…go check out Thomas Hines’s Book.”

    Andrew Root is also articulating these types of concepts in specifically youth-ministry-centered books and lectures.

    The idea of “adolescence” is an invented one. But we’ve made it a very concrete reality. So what do we do with this reality? Denying the fact that it exists simply because it SHOULDN’T exist doesn’t help anything.

    I don’t think we can really “disagree” with these findings, since they simply state facts. The question is in our interpretation of these facts. Andrew Root has suggested that youth ministry can only be effective when we begin teaching students to throw off the shackles of “adolescence” and embrace a new way of living. I think we call that “Kingdom”.

    That said, this type of research helps us at least to see what students are like within the “adolescent” paradigm, how they got there, and why they do what they do.

    Also, they are under the yoke of original sin and need to learn self-control. :)

  • Randy Gabrielse

    This is all very interesting. Our church just completed a series of classes on youth “faith formation.” 95% of it was child developmental psychology, complete with precise explanations for both the pregnancy and the driving described at the beginning of the article.

    The article was spot on until the last two paragraphs, which suggest that the researcher is looking at middle and upper class white kids. The broad brush contention that young people have little opportunity to learn real-life skills and consequences of their actions does not ring true to the urban working and not-working class environment that we live in. Most of the youth in our world are all too familiar with the real-life consequences of their actions — consequences that can follow them for the rest of their lives for good or for harm.

    I would like to see some of this data regarding diverging paths of development in adolescents used to see how our justice system is fundamentally screwed up in trying teenagers as adults and then holding them responsible for the resultant felony convictions for the rest of their lives. How does what we learn here in psych. square with that?

    Peace,
    Randy Gabrielse

  • Holly

    “We need to help them and facilitate that intelligently and with both depth and safety. This is part of what is driving many homeschoolers.”

    Hello….

    YES!

  • Diane

    At 15 going on 16 my twin sons worked for a summer as janitors in a –yes, government-funded program. It was the best thing that ever happened to them. They were willing to work hard–and they were put to hard work. By last summer, when they were 16 going on 17, the program had been cut. They couldn’t even find jobs in our depressed backwater at a Wendy’s or a warehouse despite absolutely glowing job recommendations. Jobs are so important to youth. I find it difficult to understand why, when the private sector can’t or won’t create jobs, we don’t support a government jobs program. Just saying … because I agree–teens needs to be out in the world with adults, learning to function away from their parents and peers.


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