Trying to understand

May 1, 2012

Teenagers have confused adults from time immemorial. When I recall my own youth, I know that I was as confusing and frustrating to my parents as young people in our community are to theirs. The only difference is that we now understand so much more about what makes teenagers tick – not that it excuses some of what is done, but perhaps it helps us understand why the things happen.
We all know that, from about ten to twenty, people change. The physical growth spurt is obvious. Anyone who pays attention to a person in their teens is well aware that, all of a sudden, they go from shoulder height to way over our heads. What we don’t see are the changes inside the skull. The brain of an adult is a balance of white matter and gray (the gray being the cells that promote learning.) Teenager brains are almost all gray matter. They learn at an amazing rate – one that most of us would love to be able to recall at this point. They retain what they learn, but do not have the experience or judgment to make reflexive use of what they know. According to the studies we have now, female brains are in transition from about ten to twenty one; male brains from about ten to twenty five. Until that brain “settles”, it is vulnerable – to emotions, drugs and alcohol.
The older brain tends to be more efficient. It does not accept or learn new information as quickly, but it can process things very quickly. The younger brain learns quickly, but does not process consequences well. As a result, asking a question, such as “would you set your hair on fire” to an adult results in an immediate NO; a teenager may take longer to reach the same result as he considers various factors and consequences – especially whether or not his friends will be doing it.
This is one of the reasons that consequences for teenage actions need to be immediate. Long range thought is not the strength of this mind – that is one of the benefits of the white matter, as it develops. To tell a teenager that, twenty years from now, his lungs will look like rubber because of his current smoking, is not likely to change his behavior. Twenty years is a lifetime away. Counselors are beginning to discover that, if they can create an “immediate” consequence, behavior will change almost overnight. For instance, if the person of the opposite gender that everyone on the high school campus wants to call “friend” has no use for persons who smoke…the habit will rapidly disappear!
From time to time in the news, we read of individuals who, under horrific strain, manage to think through the crisis to a solution – saving lives and property. When questioned, they normally state that they have no idea how they were able to think so clearly, it simply happened. The credit for the thought process in crisis belongs to a brain chemical abbreviated THP (no relation to another THP…!). In person under nine and over about twenty five, it clarifies thinking in times of high emotion or stress. It seems to damp the chemicals which enhance anxiety and floods blood to the prefrontal cortex to aid in logical thinking. From nine to twenty five, however, it has the opposite effect. Still released in copious quantities when in a stressful situation, in young people it enhances anxiety and actually constricts blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, making it literally impossible for a young person to think clearly in crisis. Interestingly, even as adults, women seem to create a higher level of this chemical – so while we are known to be “emotional”, our emotions tend to “flash”, but the ability for enhanced critical thinking comes to the front that much faster.
The thing to remember from all this is that, when a teenager is under the influence of this compound, he is not thinking rationally. Actions which are patently irrational seem rational to him. It is believed that this is one of the main causes of teenage suicide, and possibly also many of the school violence problems. To a mind that is not thinking rationally, these actions seem reasonable; even thirty minutes may make a difference, lowering the chemical and allowing blood to reenter the portion of the brain responsible for rational thought.
Working with young people, whether through the church, community organization, school or court system can be wonderful…and it can be very trying. Remembering that, even though teenagers may look and act as though they have passed that intangible line into adulthood, their brains are still immature may help.

Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to

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