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What Were You Thinking?

January 11, 2012

I’ve been teaching teenagers for over a decade now, not as long as some of my more veteran colleagues, but long enough to have my fair share of interactions with teenagers. If you factor in the years I spent as a substitute (also known as the Dark Ages of my career, I give a lot of credit to those brave people) and my time as a tutor, it can easily be said that I have worked with well over a thousand teenagers (and that is probably a gross underestimation). In all those interactions, I have come to a conclusion and this conclusion is shared by many of my friends who are parents to teenagers, there is something wrong with them! There is just some sort of miscommunication going on “upstairs” that keeps a lot of teenagers from doing things that most people can do! What is wrong with them?!! And, Heaven forbid, if you were to ask them the age-old question, “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!!” Because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their response is always the same, “I don’t know.” After hearing this response over and over again and listening to experts and reading materials, I have discovered something about these teenagers and their noncommittal response, AND THAT IS…

They are absolutely right.

It is a more than fair assumption that your teenager really did not know what they were thinking. Their brains literally are not ready to process thoughts like that. According to the research of Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health, the human brain has not completely formed by the time a person is a teenager. Most of the brain, about 95%, has been formed by the time your child was five or six. However, the remaining 5%, which is located in the prefrontal cortex, has another growth spurt around the time your child is 11 or 12 and lasting well into their teen years.

Now, when you look at what that remaining 5% of the brain controls, you can start to see where the problems lie (and you can also hear some of your words echoing in your own brain). The prefrontal cortex is the “CEO of the brain” (Spinks, PBS Frontline) and is in charge of many of the functions we see as the shortcomings of adolescents.

It controls planning (“You need to think about your future!”).

It controls working memory (“How many times do I need to tell you…”).

It controls organization (“How can you find anything in this mess?”).

It controls impulsivity (“What were you thinking?”).

It modulates moods (no quote needed here – it would probably set off a teenage mood swing if any of them are reading this).

But fear not, there is a silver lining to all of those parents who have to live with these developing teens. This DOES eventually end! That is good news for the teenagers, too, all that confusion and angst that you cannot seem to pinpoint the reason for will go away (true, that just makes way for all the adulthood confusion and angst that you CAN pinpoint the reason for) and you will start to feel normal.

It is all a waiting game. There is, most likely, nothing abnormal about their behavior if they randomly shave off part of one of their eyebrows (not that I would know anything about that from personal experiences that may or may not have resulted in my need to use a Maybelline pencil to draw in part of my face for a week) or to have no clue that there is something wrong with dropping dirty clothes in a pile a mere foot away from the hamper in which the clothes are supposed to go (again, I plead the fifth). Soon, your teen’s brain will catch up with the rest of their body and they will be able to “reason better [and] develop more control over impulses and judgments” (Spinks, PBS Frontline).

I would like to quickly switch the focus for a moment from psychological development to physical. Another helpful little tidbit that I learned from Jack Berckemeyer, Director of Professional Development for Incentive Publications, is that sometimes adolescents are not trying to BE a pain in the butt; in fact they might actually HAVE a pain in the butt! Along with the still-developing frontal cortex, they are still dealing with the final growth of their coccyx, or tail bone. Have you ever wondered why the younger teenagers seem to have a very difficult time sitting still or even sitting in the position that their chairs were designed? It might be because it is uncomfortable for them to sit on that bone. You mix that discomfort with impulse control issues from the frontal cortex and you have got yourself a recipe for a human pinball!

So, by all means, I am not saying you should be lax when it comes to dealing with adolescent issues. I am just pointing out the medical facts that could play a part in these issues. There are reasons behind the behaviors. In closing, just know that teenagers are still a work in progress and sometimes even they don’t know how to deal with themselves. Be mindful and compassionate and, as always, be willing to lend them your ears because, sometimes, that is all they need.

Happy New Year.

Jason Williams is an 8th grade English Teacher at Washington Middle School. He is a life-long Chautauqua County resident along with his wife, Holly, and their son, Drew. He holds two degrees in education specializing in instructing adolescents. He is the owner and director of Lights of Broadway Productions and an avid supporter of Team DJ the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

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