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Inside the Head of a Teenager

Last week Parade magazine had a cover story by Judith Newman about how the teenage brain works.  The headline of the story was: “What’s Really Going On Inside Your Teen’s Head.”  The sub headline was: “They’re moody.  Secretive.  Spacy.  Infuriating!  Now scientists are starting to figure out why.”

I didn’t pay any attention to the article until my 19 year old daughter, Mary Rose, approached me while I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to install a software program on her laptop.  She plopped the article down on the table in front of me.  She then pointed to a paragraph in the article and ordered me to: “READ THIS!”  I obeyed her command and read the paragraph.  Here’s what it said:

The frontal lobes, and particularly the prefrontal cortex, are one of the last areas of the brain to develop.  Researchers now believe that the prefrontal cortex – responsible for things like organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, and controlling impulses – is not fully developed until the late 20’s.

I immediately realized what Mary was up to.  Since I sometimes comment about how teenagers tend to be impulsive and out of control, she was going to use the article to prove to me that the reason teenagers have trouble managing their lives is because their brains have not yet been fully developed.  If she could convince me that the theory was really true, she would then have an excuse each time I got on her about being impulsive and unorganized. (To be fair to Mary, she’s a lot like me.  She has a tendency to walk into a room, say something that will get a rise out of someone else, and then enjoy the spirited argument that results from her statement.)

After reading about the prefrontal cortex, I looked up at Mary and said: “This proves to me that since your brain is not going to be fully developed until you’re in your late 20’s, you should listen to me and do exactly what I tell you for at least the next 10 years.”  She looked at me and for a moment she didn’t know what to say.  I threw her off because I think she assumed I would argue against what was said in the article.  If I had done that, she would have been able to take the position that the article was based on extensive scientific and medical research and we would have ended up in a long discussion (argument) about whether the theory set forth in the article was true or false.

The following day I read through the entire article.  There was a reference to a study that was performed at the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.  Here’s what it said:

Moreover, the teens and adults used different areas of the brain to process what they were feeling.  Teens rely much more on the amygdala, a small almond-shaped region in the medial and temporal  lobes that processes memory and emotions, while adults rely more on the frontal cortex, which governs reason and forethought.

The final paragraph of the article stated:

So it is, too, with tragedies like Columbine.  ‘There have always been adolescents who feel enraged, who want to get even, who feel ostracized.  The adolescent brain is less able to control those stresses,’ says Daniel Weinberger of the National Institute of Mental Health.  ‘The difference is while 50 years ago there might have been punches thrown, now there are automatic weapons.  You put one of those in the hands of an immature prefrontal cortex, and it is more likely to go off.’

I have news for Daniel Weinberger.  The difference between today and 50 years ago has nothing to do with automatic weapons, which were readily available in 1960.  The difference between now and then has been the complete and total breakdown of the moral code of a large percentage of our population. 

In the early 1960’s, prayer in the public schools was not only allowed, but encouraged.  Back then, killing an unborn child was not an accepted method of birth control.  It was murder.  There weren’t large gangs of teenagers in every major city who taught other teenagers how to hate and kill.  There were no horror films that showed multiple acts of gruesome violence, dismemberment, and murder.  There were no video or internet games where boys practiced killing other human beings as a sport.  Besides what was shown on the network news about the war in Vietnam, the only violence that was shown in the media that involved killing others was what was on television and in movies.  Yes, there were westerns, war movies, and gangster shows that showed people shooting other people, but the person who was shot simply dropped dead by falling off a horse, out of a window, or onto the ground.  Nothing  graphic.  No blood spurting out of the person who was shot.  The killing of others was not glorified in the media like it is today.

After I reread the paragraph my daughter pointed out to me, I thought: “I’m 53 years old and I still have trouble organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, and controlling impulses.  That must mean that my own prefrontal cortex never became fully developed.  I wonder if I can use that as an excuse next time I’m late for an appointment, procrastinate on an important task, or impulsively behave in an unacceptable manner.”

The bottom line here is that we humans have a tendency to place the blame for our deficiencies and inappropriate behavior on outside factors, such as the way we were raised, our own mental, physical, or emotional condition, or, of course, the actions the other people.  I would like nothing more than to be able to blame my failure to overcome my deficiencies on my prefrontal cortex or that small almond-shaped part of my brain, but that would only make things worse.

We have all been called by God to rise above our own deficiencies and take personal responsibility for our own behavior.  The only way we can do this is by asking ourselves questions like: “What could I have done differently to avoid the result I ended up with?” or “What behavior do I need to change in the future to get the results I desire?”  We have very little control over the way our brains mature or the behavior of the people around us.  We do, however, have control over how we react to others and whether we are going to choose to accept responsibility for our own actions.

This is one of the primary keys to happiness – an intentional act that requires us to stop blaming other people and other circumstances for our own defects and accept responsibility for our own behavior.  I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this almost every day.

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3 Responses to “Inside the Head of a Teenager”

  1. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Harry and Georgette –
    What a beautiful daughter you have in Mary Rose! Having counseled PND (AOL/SI} teens for 28 years until 2006 retirement, I’ve exchanged thinking with young persons, many similar to Mary Rose! On a one-on-one their defenses become less, and their questions gradually come to the fore. When this happened, I led them to their own answers, sometimes with a little needed coaxing. I love them! Thank you again for an article well done! The prayers continue… Sister Roberta

  2. Naudia Johnson Says:

    Amen, Amen & another Amen!!! Thank you so much for sharing this, I agree 100%. May God continue to richly bless you and your family 🙂

  3. Harry Says:

    Thanks for your comment and support.

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