Being a father of teens is an exasperating, patience-stretching, bewildering, scary experience. Our teens are often perplexing, sometimes worrisome, and frequently unpredictable. Often, we dads will find ourselves saying, “What were you thinking?!” meaning, “You weren’t!” We can’t understand why teens make the decisions they do or act in such risky and uncertain ways.
Teen Brain Imagery
A fascinating article in the National Geographic provides some insight. Technology has now shown us a window into the teen brain. Imagery has illustrated how our brain takes much longer to develop than we had ever thought. It turns out that the brain reaches 90 percent of its potential by the age of six, and it spends adolescence reorganizing, making new pathways, integrating experience and decision making, and just generally becoming quicker and more efficient.
Why They Do What They Do
Through brain imaging, scientists have discovered that there is a physical reason why our sons and daughters act as they do. They are works in progress. It is important to remember this when we are wondering why they frequently forget to pick up their dishes, drive in neutral down a steep hill at night with their lights off, eat nothing but cabbage soup and grapefruit for two weeks, or date the boy who brags that he’s bedded every candidate for homecoming queen. It’s “immature brains.”
But looking more deeply, it turns out that adolescence, often seen as a period of self-centeredness, angst and impulsiveness, is also a period of adaptation. Where we see trouble, scientists are beginning to see children building the skills necessary for a successful life.
The Risky Teen
Teens take risks. We frequently describe it as … stupidity. Again, we wonder, “What were you thinking?!” But according to recent research, teens view risk differently than adults. Risky behavior usually reaches its pinnacle in the mid-teen years. It is driven by the value teens place on reward. Experiments have shown that when the reward is high or when peers are present and acceptance or rejection is close at hand, teens engage in greater risk. Social rejection is a threat to your teen’s existence. S/He places a great value on being accepted by peers.
So the next time your teen does something you judge as foolish, bone-headed or risky, try to remember that s/he is trying to successfully move into the larger world, outside your safe and comfortable home. Your teen is building successful life skills, learning to be more adaptive, reaching out and making connections.
Your teen’s quest is to become more socially comfortable, overcome challenges and thrive in new environments. Indeed there is a purpose behind what teenagers do. It is important to understand that. However, it remains our job, both dad and mom, to provide the structure and guidance to help teens get to that larger world in a safe manner.