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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 03/30/2010

Researchers take new look at teenage brain

By Valerie Strauss

My guests are Joseph P. Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen, clinical psychologists on the faculty of the University of Virginia and co-authors of "Escaping The Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old."

By Joseph P. Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen
"Why do most 16-year-olds drive like they’re missing a part of their brain? Because they are," begins the full-page ad (accompanied by a drawing of a brain with a hole in it) that has been running prominently for months in national publications from Newsweek to the The Wall Street Journal to The Washington Post. If we replaced "16-year-olds" with any other demographic or ethnic group, the ad would never see the light of day.

But with adolescents it’s different. We casually belittle teens with eye rolls, comic strips and sitcoms, and hardly give it a second thought. Yet the most damaging prejudices are those we don’t even recognize as such, and this one is no different.

What about those missing brain parts? The ad’s portrayal of teens as victims of immature brains and raging hormones is one that has long captured popular imagination. Yet, while the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed in teens (it’s far from missing), we still have little evidence that this affects teens’ real-life behavior.

When we do look at actual behavior, however, recent neuropsychological research shows that the teens who take the most risks appear to be those with the most developed brains. The problem may not be teens’ brain immaturity, but adults’ casual presumption that teens are incompetent, a presumption that typically leaves teens with little access to healthy outlets for their prodigious energy.

It wasn’t always this way. Across human history, societies that didn’t treat teenagers as if they had holes in their heads obtained different results.

Two anthropologists, Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry, reviewed carefully recorded descriptions of youth in hundreds of primitive societies over the last few centuries and found a powerful inverse relationship between the expectations and demands a society placed upon its youth and the level of juvenile delinquency in that society: Societies that expected the most of their youth typically even lacked terms for "juvenile delinquency."

In our own society a few generations back, when teens contributed a substantial proportion of their family’s income, they grew up quickly, with less angst and anxiety than today’s teens.

Perhaps the best evidence of our prejudice-fueled thinking, however, is that in our efforts to distinguish teen brains from adult brains, we studiously overlook key differences that favor teens.

In terms of raw processing speed, for example, the human brain begins to slow down soon after adolescence, so that by age 50, the average adult is literally thinking more slowly than 85 percent of 18-year-olds. Thankfully, teens aren’t in charge of newspaper ads, or we might see sketches proclaiming: "This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain Decaying with Age!"

Even when individuals can escape this prejudice by growing older, it is far from harmless. If we treat teens as though only the passage of time will let them grow up, we may find them growing old first instead.

Unlike prior generations, more than half of today’s "post-adolescents" receive significant parental financial support past age 23; three-quarters of young people between 18 and 30 report receiving monthly help from parents with domestic chores.

High school students are now delaying learning to drive longer than ever before, due, they say, to their parents’ willingness to chauffer them. Our youth are gradually learning to live down to the low expectations we set for them.

Conversely, we’ve found in our research that even modest efforts to overcome our prejudices and treat teens more like capable adults -- engaging them with adult tasks in the adult world -- yield remarkable and robust outcomes, ranging from documented increases in school success to dramatic decreases in teen pregnancy rates.

Teens, like all of us, need both challenge and support to mature. Throughout human history teens have been recognized as more capable than we currently treat them as being, and they have risen to the challenge in vital tasks from leading expeditions, to commanding armies, to inspiring social change. They can quickly reach their potential again, but only if we’re willing to stop treating them as fundamentally incompetent.

The alternative -- mindlessly holding on to an all-too-casual prejudice against teens -- only leaves them dispirited and adults acting like the ones with holes in their heads.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 30, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Research  | Tags:  brain research, guest bloggers, teenage brain  
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No one seems to note these myths about children are always for just American children.

In this country these myths start early on.

Girls that are good in soccer are not good players but aggressive.

Girls are not good in math.

There is something wrong with boys who are not rowdy and aggressive.

Boys that are good in school are geeks and nerds.

That drawing of a brain with a hole in it is not of children but adults here in America.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 30, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

My brother apparently suffered from a learning disability back when they just called it "not trying hard enough."

But from age 12 on he worked with the neighboring farmers, alongside them and adults or older teens. Once, he and his friends volunteered to spend the day picking corn for a neighbor who had a death in the family. The three boys worked all day until dark, with few high-jinks, no damage to the equipment, and no complaints about the heat. That fall, my brother went back to school and resumed the pattern of playing hooky, skipping his homework, and disrupting the class. He quit school at 16. Eventually, he became interested in police work, obtained his GED, and worked as a policeman.

I often wondered just what kind of contact he would have had with the police had the farmers in the neighborhood not shown him respect for responsible, adult behavior.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 30, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

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