As the parent of teenagers, I have found that knowing a little bit about their internal mechanisms really helps me keep some of their less desirable behaviour in perspective. So, for your amusement and edification, here are a few weird and wonderful facts about teenagers that might explain why they do the things they do….
Teenagers can’t remember future tasks
Teenagers have poor prospective memories which means they are not very good at holding things in their heads to remember to do later. When you nag them, it really does go in one ear and out the other. Teaching teens to use props like timetables, planners and checklists can help get them organised (see Teaching teens self-organisation skills).
Teenagers’ brains are wired to take risks
During adolescence our brains undergo a major rewiring to increase transmission speed and weed out unnecessary connections, a bit like a final hardware upgrade before adulthood. The brain regions associated with planning and decision-making (located in the frontal lobes) are finished last, which means the part of the brain used to weigh up risks and make balanced decisions is not fully functioning in teenagers. Teens need parents to act as their risk assessing pre-frontal lobes while their own are still developing.
Teenagers are more prone to addiction
Levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine are lower in the teenage brain. But when teens get something they want, their brains release more dopamine than an adult’s. Which means their highs are higher and from a lower base. That’s a huge neurological pay-off when things feel good – which can drive teens to repeat feel-good behaviour and makes them more vulnerable to addiction.
Teenagers believe you are being hostile (even when you aren’t)
Because the rational front part of their brains is underdeveloped, teenagers tend to rely on the more primitive back brain to interpret people’s facial expressions. This part of the brain is sensitized to danger and threat and is therefore more likely to detect hostile emotions when these aren’t actually present. Encouraging teenagers to talk about emotions (‘speak before you leap’) can help keep them out of trouble. And try not to join in when they fly off the handle unnecessarily (see How do I cope with teenage tantrums?)!
Teenagers naturally fall asleep late and wake up late
Melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy, is released later at night in a teenager’s brain and hangs around for longer the next day. That’s why teens often don’t feel sleepy until after 10pm and can be groggy in the mornings. But because their brains are growing at a phenomenal rate, teenagers need a lot of sleep (as much as toddlers!). There is a direct link between the amount of sleep a teenager gets and their grades at GCSE, so parents need to do everything they can to help them get their full 9-10 hours a night.
Teenagers’ sense of smell is less developed than an adult’s
OK, so I don’t actually know if this is really true but it is the only explanation I can find for the odours seeping out from under my teenage boys’ bedroom doors! Whether it’s choking on clouds of perfumed body spray or braving the stale fug of hormones and dirty socks in a teenager’s room, parents of teenagers get used to living with some very strong smells!
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