When Teens Need Some Slack

By the teen years young people can have picked up many skills of adults and perform them with skill. Interest levels can take them to the top even at a very early age.  Childhood is the time for them to learn how to care for thimages (4)emselves and perform tasks under supervision that they will need to master in their adult life, increasing their skills year by year.  As these skills increase, their bodies grow and develop, and in many cases their attitudes and mouths  do as well, demonstrating how adult they think they have become.  It is often difficult to stay focused on the fact that they are mentally still developing children.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD, director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass, has uncovered data that confirms that as children grow into adults, they use different parts of the brain in decision making than adults do, which causes responses to be more emotional and from the gut than “thinking functions: planning, goal-directed behavior, judgment, insight” of adults.  In a study which showed teens 11-17 and adults pictures related to fear, the adults got it correct 100% of the time while the children did not.  The results were 50%, with the younger teens misjudging it the most and males more than females.  The MRIs used in the study confirmed that the youngsters and the adults were not using the same part of the brain for the decision making. While the adolescents use the emotional region of the brain rather than the executive functioning frontal region that the adults use, in adults the two regions also work together.

Dr. Yurgelun- Todd said, “Our findings suggest that what is coming into the brain, how it’s being organized, and then ultimately the response — all three of those may be different in our adolescents. So that attitude may be part of that, or may be related to that. But it’s not simply a matter of teenagers feeling like they don’t want to do something, or that they’re just going to give you a hard time.”

In addition to making impulsive decisions without thought to consequences, this functioning also affects communication.  They may misinterpret the emotions on any adult’s face and therefore react differently than expected based on their perception.  I remember being asked incredulously, ‘What were you thinking?’ And at the time I was thinking to myself,  ‘What is the problem? I didn’t do anything wrong’, or ‘I don’t know! It made sense at the time!’  Although an adult may think they have absolutely made their instructions clear, adolescents’ brains may receive it differently, add their own timeline to it especially if it was not made clear, and prioritize their to-do list with their own interests at the top.

Teens need the opportunity to take the way they interpreted non verbal messages and reacted to them, and consider other possibilities.  That takes guidance, since as shown by Dr. Yurgelun- Todd they may not be thinking cognitively, but emotionally.   When adults see teens as adults rather than developing children,  they see difficult young people, often believing it is by choice.  They react with frustration and anger, which are more emotions that could be misread.  images (8)In my personal experiences as an educator, parent and grandparent, I have seen this simply read as ‘they don’t like or love me’, and react with ‘I can’t ever do anything right so why bother trying’? or ‘I don’t know what they want from me’ and fail to do anything.   As I write this it occurs to me that I know of adults that react the same way, (including myself for many years), perhaps verifying Dr. Yurgelun- Todd’s belief that these human interactions must be taught.

Communicating with young children through young adulthood is important.  Since adults have the ability to use the thinking functions of their frontal lobe in conjunction with their emotions, where children and teens do not, they are called upon to limit their emotional responses during that communication.


  • Ascertain what they heard you say and what that meant to them.
  • Be sure you are clear about timelines.
  • Come to an agreement about priorities, acknowledging they have their own.
  • Give them opportunities to excel in areas of strength that do not involve executive functioning of which they are not yet capable.
  • Respond to their actions with patience.  Although often difficult, one of you needs to remain the adult.  Nothing is gained by meeting them at their cognitive and emotional level.
  • LISTEN to what they have to say.  Whether it makes sense to you or not, their feelings are very real and natural.  With guidance they may be able to see other perspectives.

Although they may think they are adults now, they are not and the job of parenting is far from over.  With guidance and patience they can mature into independent, self confident adults able to develop strong healthy relationships for years to come.

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PBS Frontline interview with Dr. Deborah Yurgelun- Todd, PhD director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA



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