No, Your Teen Isn’t Crazy… Well, Sort Of

Without knowing the biology behind your teen's risk taking, handling them is risky business. Learn the ins and outs.

Teens have a knack for instantaneously inducing insanity in the adults around them.  They’re stubborn, closed, risk-taking, and their, “That’s not normal” alarm is clearly malfunctioning – they think everything isn’t normal (Exhibit A: you) except for the questionable hooligans they call friends.  So, how do you, as a parent, not just survive this but actually help your once-upon-a-time sane child as well? 

In the next article we’ll get into specific skills.  For now, you need to know two things about the teenage brain to have any hope of navigating this problem.  Dr. Larry Steinberg, a leading researcher on teenage risk-taking has found that, first, the rational decision-making system of the brain develops quite early.  As hard as this is to believe, your teen is no more “irrational” than you.  This uncomfortable fact is largely what’s behind those punishingly sharp arguments you’re beginning to have.  The kid’s starting to make some sense – in a zombie sort of way.  The take home, here, is your teen also realizes there’s a problem between you two and is at as much of a loss explaining or fixing it as you.

Second, as near as Steinberg can tell, teens are like sports cars without breaks.  The make and model of this car is the socio-emotional system.  It develops quite early and is behind the ecstatic feeling of bliss when around friends and the crushing desperation of nihilism when alone. Teens are figuring out who they are and self-discovery is, by definition, a social act of comparison.  And, that act is going 250 miles an hour.  Your teen is literally a friends-addict.

The underdeveloped cognitive-control system is the missing breaks.  This system finishes developing in your early 20’s and enable planning, consequences reward and risk comparison, emotional self-regulation, inhibition, and abstract thinking.  This amounts to intense short-term thinking, emotional instability, and blindness to consequences.  So, teenager stuff. 

Putting these pieces together, your teen is rational enough to both see and be confused by how he’s being torn in two by the intense need to be with others and know himself.  At the same time, he’s recklessly writing checks his body can’t cash – on a biological level he literally doesn’t know when to quit.  Man, I’m glad I’m not a teenager.

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Rabbi Yonasan Bender LCSW graduated from Hebrew University’s School of Social Work. He works with adults, couples, and children from his private therapy practice in Jerusalem.  He holds several semichos from Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, shlita.  To share your thoughts, experiences, questions, or a different perspective, you can reach Rabbi Yonasan Bender LCSW at 053-808-0435 and at jerusalemtherapy@gmail.com or check out his website at www.jerusalemtherapy.org.

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