"What were they thinking?"
Like most parents of tweens and teens, I ask myself this question on a regular basis in regards to the decisions my kids make. For the most part, their bad decisions entail unhealthy food choices or binge-watching Netflix instead of doing their homework. It's usually not a big deal unless they start throwing up because they ate something they knew would make them sick or they have to rush around frantically to turn in their schoolwork on time because they wasted six hours watching "Stranger Things."
But for many adolescents, their bad decisions have much more dire consequences. New research shows that adolescent brains (defined as 13- to 24-year-olds) go through structural changes that may affect their ability to make sound decisions. In a new Audible-original podcast series, "What Were You Thinking?" journalist Dina Temple-Raston takes a closer look at what's going on in the adolescent brain.
Temple-Raston talks with teens who made astonishing and questionable choices that changed their lives forever. There's the Midwest teen who goes from high school football star to ISIS recruit in less than a year and the bullied teen whose desire to connect with other victims of bullying sent him on a path that led to his arrest for planning a school shooting. "What Were You Thinking?" showcases not only the adolescents who made life-altering choices, but also how the development of the adolescent brain made them more likely to make those risky decisions.
The young brain
Scientists have been trying to unlock the mystery of the adolescent brain for years. Early theories attempting to explain teen decision-making focused on surging hormones and the need for kids to find their place in the world. As kids mature and emerge from the protective shell of their parents, they have a strong need to uncover their own identities and figure out where they belong. But while these factors certainly play a role in adolescent development, researchers are now beginning to see that there's more to it than that.
Changes in the adolescent brain at this stage of development are responsible for several behaviors that can lead to erratic behavior. For instance, the adolescent brain’s hunger for the "feel good" chemical, dopamine, drives young people to push boundaries and take risks. In addition, the same neuroplasticity in the brain that allows them to absorb information quickly also makes them more prone to addiction.
These structural brain differences may also be responsible for the fact that teens and young adults tend to over-identify with others and focus excessively on every setback (even the minor ones). Add to this factors such as social media (which amplifies emotions) and sleep deprivation (which has been shown to affect decision making) and it's no wonder that when adolescents are presented with critical decision-making opportunities, normal social taboos vanish and negative actions (such as drinking, taking drugs or even committing suicide) become contagious.
I'll admit that when I first started listening to this podcast, I wondered how any adolescents ever survive to adulthood. But fortunately, Temple-Raston not only takes a deep dive into the issues surrounding young brains, she also takes a closer look at some of the solutions. For example, with a better understanding of adolescent brains, researchers are learning ways to use social media to connect teens with others so they can find help quickly when they need it. There has also been a much bigger push in recent years to talk about mental health in school as part of the health curriculum. Just as kids learn about the importance of taking care of their physical health, they can also begin to understand the issues that might be affecting their emotional well-being.
The adolescent years are tumultuous and scary (for both young people and their parents), but there's hope. The more we know about adolescent brains, the better equipped we will be to help guide them through those confusing years and the issues they may face.