Teen Brains Wired to Make Lousy Decisions [Guest Post]

Ever scratch your head and wonder what your teen was thinking when they made a decision that was clearly going to have negative consequences? You saw the right choice; why couldn’t they?

Two reasons: teen brains aren’t fully grown up, and teens use a different part of the brain to make decisions than you do.

Get used to scratching your head for a few more years. Your teen’s “good decision making” part of the brain won’t mature until they are in their late twenties. This slow growing part of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex. Think of it as the CEO of the brain. It is responsible for rational, logical decision making, future planning and understanding consequences. Since this part of the brain is still maturing, teen brains’ are wired to rely more another area of the brain to make decisions. It’s called the limbic system.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that is responsible for what scientists call the 4 F’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing and sexual reproduction. (You can fill in that F.) The 4 F’s are all about survival, pleasure in the moment, and emotions. The limbic system is fabulous to help your teen run away from or fight off danger, but lousy at helping them decide if sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night with their buddies is a stellar move.

It is important for parents to understand the teen brain so they don’t flip out when their teen makes lousy decisions Parents should use those lousy decisions as teachable moments rather than shame their  teen and scream, “What were you thinking?” The fact of the matter is they probably weren’t thinking. At least not like an adult would think. With the limbic system as the “steering wheel” for teens, sneaking out in the middle of the night feels like a fine choice when it is suggested.

One way to help your teen learn to connect more with their prefrontal cortex is to ask your teen to think through consequences of  actions before they are presented with the situation. Let them “role play.” You may need to list possible outcomes of decisions so they have a better understanding of what might happen. The key is to present the information in a neutral way and allow your teen to have as much control over their choices as possible . If you always make your teen’s decisions, they won’t have the chance to figure out their own lives. Some research suggests that teens who take some risks and don’t get hurt by them, actually grow up to be more successful than teens who don’t take some risks. That’s not to say you want your teen making lousy decisions all the time. But look on the bright side. They are growing and learning, one lousy decision at a time.

By Dr. Jennifer Austin Leigh, Life coach for teen girls and their mothers, and author of Laid or Loved?  The Secrets Guys Wish You Knew About Being a Dream Girl Instead of a Just-In-His-Jeans Girl and My Dream Girl Diary: Journal Your Way to Love and Respect. www.drjennforgirls.com

6 Responses to “Teen Brains Wired to Make Lousy Decisions [Guest Post]”

  1. Lisa Frederiksen
    May 24, 2009 at 4:06 pm #

    Great post…this late stage wiring also explains why substance abuse during the teen years and on into college can be so problematic. The article at this link sheds some light on this idea:

  2. zella pratt
    May 30, 2009 at 9:15 am #

    i need to know why my daugther makes think that see is so amaze with the oppiste sex at 11 i see her looking at older boys and wanting to hold conversation with a older man that scares me from both sides you might have a jerk that cant control himself with a child and that can trigger him off i hope she will tell because i will get the law involve and i do belive that some little girls can be a little out of control but i want to know how to help and prevent

  3. Vanessa Van Petten
    June 1, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    I think talking to her about your concerns making sure she has older female role models who respect themselves. Watching media together and bringing up topics as they come up on screen.

    Thanks for reading and good luck!


  4. Jill
    December 20, 2009 at 8:38 pm #

    This was was eye-opening to me. We have a 13 y/o son adopted from Eastern Europe who operates completely from the limbic system. Every decision he makes is bases solely on his survival, pleasure in the moment and emotions. We have 6 children in all (2 bio, 4 adopted) and I spend a great deal of time teaching them how to make good decisions, role playing, trying to fill in all those gaps that formed when they joined our family and had to play catch up. (they were all adopted between the ages of 2-5)

    What else can be done to develope the prefrontal cortex? This child is not my first teen but EVERY decision he makes seems to be the wrong one. It’s wearing on the rest of the family.

    Any advice you may have would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you!


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