The paranoid brain fabricates menacing scenarios that petrify and isolate. The depressed brain suppresses joy and deflates hope. The dementia-clouded brain suggests life should be lived in the distant past, not the present moment.
Diseased brains can be seriously deceitful; but they aren’t the only ones. Healthy brains mislead too. They can’t help it. It’s all a part of the natural growth process.
The lies healthy brains tell
Toddler brains say, “You don’t need any help. You can do it all by yourself.” The brain of a middle schooler says, “Every single thing in your life is of equal importance: the grade on a test, the well-being of your grandparents, and whether or not your crush likes you. It all matters the same.” Teenaged and young adult brains say, “Ignore the warning,” and “It won’t happen to you,” or “That doesn’t apply to me.”
All of the above normal thought patterns come with their share of inherent dangers, but it is the last one that is the most lethal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, even though “. . . young people at this age are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, . . . death[s] by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14.”
Harvard neurologist and parent Frances Jensen began studying the adolescent brain when her two sons were teenagers. She explains, “Nature made the brains of children and adolescents excitable. Their brain chemistry is tuned to be responsive to everything in their environment. After all, that’s what makes kids learn so easily.”  So it’s normal. Scary, but normal.
That frontal lobe business
See the brain is not fully developed until we are in our mid to late 20’s. And the part of the brain that recognizes risk, the frontal lobe, is the last to grow up. That’s why we do such stupid things in high school and college. Because our brains are literally too immature to know any better.
If we’re lucky, by the time we are in our 30’s, we look back on our ideas and impulses of previous decades and cringe. We’re embarrassed, maybe even humiliated. We wish we could go back in time and tell our teenaged selves that risk is real and warnings are for a reason.
But, you know what? Our adolescent selves wouldn’t pay any attention to our overly-cautious, bossy, controlling adult selves. That’s because teenaged brains are too busy misconstruing reality.
- “Go ahead and send that text while you are driving.”
- “You don’t have to wear a helmet.”
- “Lifejackets are for wimps.”
- “You are absolutely sober enough to drive.”
Lies. All of them.
What to do?
So, adults, let’s stop the blaming and name-calling; remember that when our teenagers are acting irresponsibly, it’s because their brains are just doing what comes naturally. This response is better for the adolescent’s self-esteem, and it’s better for you too. See, a compassionate attitude is more likely to gain you a hearing when you do lay down some boundaries.
Yes, of course teenagers are good at breaking rules. That’s not the point. Stay in the game and don’t give up. Keep tweaking and revisiting the house rules. Just do it with love and understanding. You’d be surprised at how far a compassionate discussion can go towards keeping teenagers healthy and alive.
And teenagers: you can’t always trust your brains. You really can’t. So do this. In potentially dangerous situations, defer to someone whose frontal lobe is fully developed. Occasionally you might miss something fun. But at least you’ll live to complain about it.
“The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction.” NIMH RSS. The National Institute of Mental Health, n.d. Web. 12 June 2013. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/index.shtml>.
 Knox, Richard. “The Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 12 June 2013. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124119468>.
 Spinks, Sarah. “Adolescent Brains Are Works in Process.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 12 June 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/work/adolescent.html>.