Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging in the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, has spent over 14 years peering inside the heads of nearly 2,000 kids using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Giedd’s studies have shown that extensive structural changes occur in adolescent brains for many years, probably until about age 25. Remarkably, age 25 is exactly when the crash rates for adults flattens out and stays relatively similar throughout the rest of adulthood. It’s also the age at which you can first rent a car, demonstrating that the rental car companies, with cold, efficient clarity, have got it right.
As Claudia Wallis puts it in her 2004 Time magazine article, What Makes Teens Tick?: “Now that MRI studies have cracked open a window on the developing brain, other researches are looking at how the newly detected physiological changes might account for the adolescent behaviors so familiar to parents: emotional outbursts, reckless risk taking and rule breaking, and the impassioned pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Apparently, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain primarily responsible for dealing with impulses and the consequences of actions—is the last part of the brain to mature, and your teen will be out of college before it does. Much otherwise inexplicable teen behavior is now thought to be due to the lag in development between the rest of the brain and the part which helps them exercise judgment. Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg once said, in a quote especially well-suited for this book, “It’s like turning on the engine of a car without a skilled driver at the wheel.”
To summarize, a growing body of research has shown that the brains of adolescents undergo a dramatic increase in neural activity and synapse-building and pruning. Every day they really are getting smarter, but at the same time more confused, as their gray matter sparks like an overcharged battery. Do not under any circumstances make them aware of this emerging research. It’ll only give them an excuse:
“I couldn’t help it, Dad, I had a really intense synaptic explosion last night. No way would I have rolled your car unless that happened. The nerves made me do it.”
Adjust your mentoring style to the specific personality your teen appears to be inhabiting that day. And if sparks or smoke appear to be coming from the top of their heads, it may not be because they’re steamed at you. Their brains may be on fire.