stop making assumptions and inferences about teenagers based on their brains

i’ve posted about teenage brains more than once. there’s been an good amount of research on teenage brains in the past decade, thanks to the MRI. there’s also been an explosion of more popular articles that infer teenagers are the way they are because of their brains, and we shouldn’t expect them to… (make good decisions, exhibit wisdom, control impulses, set priorities, act responsibly, or any other of a long list of adult-like behaviors).

this has really started to tick me off.

but two articles in the last few months (neither is new) have pushed back a bit:

this article in the huffington post, called “the teenager brain: debunking the 5 biggest myths“.

and, a fascinating article that many of you have probably already seen, published in national geographic, suggesting an alternative (evolutionary) possibility of why teenage brains are weak in certain controls and functions.

the article mentions some of the unhelpful conclusions being drawn by others:

They act that way because their brains aren’t done! You can see it right there in the scans!

This view, as titles from the explosion of scientific papers and popular articles about the “teen brain” put it, presents adolescents as “works in progress” whose “immature brains” lead some to question whether they are in a state “akin to mental retardation.”

but it goes on to suggest an alternate view:

B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College who has spent nearly a decade applying brain and genetic studies to our understanding of adolescence, puts it, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then.”

here’s what rubs me (and i’m borrowing this from dr. robert epstein): there’s a not-so-subtle discrimination against teenagers, MASSIVELY feeding extended adolescence, in this age-old discriminatory equation —

presence of a particular physical characteristic
alongside, the presence of a real or assumed set of behavioral realities (or biases)
means, the first results in the second

let me remind of a few places we’ve seen this before:

  1. women’s brains are smaller, on average, then men’s. for centuries we were sure that women did not have the intelligence for business, voting, public office, and a variety of other intelligent functions. the smaller size of women’s brains were PROOF!
  2. jews and people of african decent were said to have certain character traits (or lack certain character traits) due to physiology (surely, you’ve all seen the nazi drawings of a typical jewish face and head, with an explanation as to how it explains the stereotype).

i think we’re seeing the same equation play out in terms of teenagers today.

the assumption is (and it’s a BIG leap in logic): teenage brains prove what we’ve always assumed, that teenagers are incapable of wisdom, good decisions, and responsibility. the obvious (!) next step is: we should treat teenagers like children (infantilization) and remove all responsibility, keeping them “safe.”


youth workers, don’t tollerate this faulty logic. don’t tollerate this discrimination. let’s be counter-cultural on this stuff — let’s INCREASE responsibility and opportunities for wisdom and choices and prioritization and impulse control.

instead of discriminating against teenagers, let’s give them opportunities to be the apprentice adults they have the full capacity to be.

11 thoughts on “stop making assumptions and inferences about teenagers based on their brains”

  1. Warning: The following comment is pure speculation, not backed by scientific study. It is intended to be provocative. Readers are forewarned.

    Yes, lots of stuff happens in the teenaged years. Lots of experimentation. Lot of mistakes. It can also be the time when a passion for a particular line of work is formed or an idea, that may become the focus for a career, is born.

    Unfortunately, it’s also the deadline for education. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to do with your life by the time you’re 20, it gets increasingly more difficult to go back and learn when you do finally realize what you want to do when you grow up.

    It makes sense to put a two year old in a bubble, closely monitoring and controlling their actions. By the time (s)he is a teenager, that bubble needs to be gone, as the parent steps back, taking on more of an advisory role. People learn from their failures. People gain character from dealing with adversity. “Protecting” someone from the little trials of life only leaves them unprepared to face bigger challenges.

    But here’s the provocative part – maybe the teenage brain, with its willingness to take risks, its questioning and its hunger for new ways of doing things is just what we all need to get out of our ruts. How many people made their most important discovery, innovation or creative work before they were 30? Are we starving ourselves for new ideas by “protecting” our youth?

  2. yeah, bill – that’s basically the point of the national geographic article. they suggest that instead of teenage brains being seen as a limitation, they should be seen as an evolutionary necessity, allowing us a period of time when we’re willing to take risks.

  3. You have a great point here, Marko. Another thing to consider, too, is that adolescents (using this term in a biological sense) have assumed adult responsibilities in other cultures and in prior generations, and their brains never seemed to hamper their abilities.

  4. Haven’t read the articles (yet, but that’s my next stop), but based on my reading of Teen 2.0 and several other discussions on education and the young mind, I can’t help but wonder if the “adolescent brain” with it’s “incomplete” formation isn’t really a new development. What if, because young adults in their teens had to make adult decisions in the past, their physiological brains developed faster? We know the mind and environment/experience can have an effect on the brain’s development. By extension, then, because we created the adolescent stage of life and have further delayed adulthood, we now have teens with less developed brains. Not sure we have any studies like that out there, and I am certainly willing to be wrong, but I know I’m trying my best to let teens be adults in our church community just in case.

    And now, every time I see a study on “the teenage mind,” I start shouting “Correlation does not equal causation!” My wife is getting irritated at me.

  5. David touched upon my question. But I’ve heard back and forth responses, in regards to whether or not there are any credible studies or research that show teenagers have a “lesser developed” brain than that of an “adult” (25 and up)…

    anyone know of any resources? (I’m sure Epstein’s book touches upon this?)

  6. andy, there’s significant “credible research” — most of it is effectively summarized in barbara strauch’s book, the primal teen. but if you just google “teen brain development research” you’re likely to find quite a bit of it.

  7. This is my opinion, I have worked with kids for 25 years and youth the past 12… people who raise children without expectations and self help skills- their child becomes a teen and all of a sudden there are expectations placed on the teen to make more adult like choices and take on mature behavior – and the kid has no tool box to pull from, they tend to rebel. Building a tool box from the time they are young will prepare a kid to handle the pressure, stress and expectations placed before them as a teen. I have a 21 yr old son who has never given me an ounce of grief. I am blessed and honored to be his mom. He’s in college, has been serving the Lord in Youth & Worship ministry, and is a confident young man. The story of my success has been building his tool box, parenting him as a child with proper expectations and life coaching him as a youth, and of course, Jesus! I continue to add as much wisdom to his tool box as i can. I also have 3 adopted kids who are approaching their teen years. They are wonderful, but have been an extreme challenge to parent because of the abuse they went through the first 5 yrs of life and attachment issues. Difficult, but not impossible!
    As a youth mentor, I see the hurt & fears of so many youth and do what I can to help them. Chalking it up to, “Oh, your brain isn’t developed fully” is the lamest excuse I have ever heard! Creating self awareness & knowledge that they have the capacity to make good choices & they have control over their choices is a good place to start building their never to late to build, life toolbox.

  8. I loved this post. I definitely agree that we shouldn’t discriminate against youth based on their possible brain activity (or lack their of). And it’s so easy for youth workers and parents to baby their teens until their out of the house, and beyond, sure that their brains just aren’t developed yet. It’s an excellent excuse that allow youth workers to maintain the power in their working relationships rather than encourging youth empowerment and youth participation. We wrote a blog post about the fact that youth can’t always reason things out appropriately, quickly or easily and that we as youth workers need to guide and teach them how to make informed decisions (but not ifantalize them or discrimate against them)

    However, the adults in young people’s lives sometimes need to be reminded that youth are in a develomental stage. They need opportunities to explore and then reflect on the outcomes. I attended a fascinating training about this very subject that shared that there are occassional moments (not all the time mind you) that youth do something and genuinely don’t know why they did it. (Dr. Friman It seemed like a plan and they weren’t really able to reason out the conseqences (hence the post above). Adults want an explaination for everything a teen does and sometimes they just can’t provide one. That means that while we can’t excuse every behavior a youth does we also need to be aware that those can be teachable moments, because without those moments youth might be greatly impacted later in their life.

    In the same training it was discussed that those decision-making pathways are developed during teen years and into early 20’s. If those pathways aren’t devloped, there will be an adult without the skills to make decisions and reason out choices. I have met so many adults who are in this exact situation. They are completely unable to think through decisions and consequences on a regular basis- and the longer they continue to be unable to practice those skills the more hardwired their brain becomes into poor decision making.

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