Teens say (and do) the darndest things: How our brains play a role in decision making.
Have you had the experience where your teenager is yelling about the unfairness of your rules one minute and cuddling with you on the couch the next? It can seem as though they sprout 6 inches overnight and take on a whole new personality, with only glimpses of the cherubic child of the past.
My son turned 16 last month. He has always been relatively easy going, charismatic and super fun to be around. And overall, he continues to be a joy…most of the time. But sometimes he becomes irrational or stuck on a point that he won’t let go (mostly related to “family rules”), spends more time in his room rather than hanging out with his cool parents, and on occasion struggles with well thought out decision-making. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, mom.”
What exactly is happening here?
Hormones definitely play a role in mood swings, impulse control, and irritability among tweens and teens. This is a period of a lot of change and when we go through hormonal changes at any stage in our lives, emotional balance can get out of whack.
But there is another reason for a teen’s seeming lack of emotional control and erratic decision-making and it has to do with the development of the brain.
The prefrontal cortex, or frontal lobes, is responsible for emotional control, organization and planning, prediction of other’s responses to our actions, AND RATIONAL DECISION MAKING. This is what makes us different from other species. It’s like the CEO of our brain, or our internal coach. This part of our brain is not fully developed until around the age of 24 (and even later in individuals with Executive Functioning disorders like ADHD).
Since this part isn’t fully developed until early adulthood, the teen brain uses a more primitive part of our brain for decision making: the limbic system. The limbic system is a group of brain structures that govern emotion and behavior. It’s often referred to as the “fight or flight” system.
Because this part of the brain uses emotion to make decisions, it generally has the short term/pleasure goal in mind, rather than the big picture. When this part of the brain is in charge, that rational part of the brain takes the back seat. This is why your teen may say or do things that seem out of character for them, especially when feeling emotional or stressed.
We all make decisions with this part of our brain when under stress or duress, but as adults, most of us have better internal control most of the time because our internal coach (our fully developed frontal lobes) is in charge.
Like me, you should take comfort in knowing that your teenager’s brain will continue to develop. In the meantime, you can help them by being as calm as possible during emotional outbursts and practicing active listening. Don’t use this time as teaching or lecturing time because they won’t be able to take in what you’re saying if they are emotionally flooded.
If they (or you) are really struggling with managing emotions…
If they continue to brood for days or become physically threatening to themselves or others, they may need support in learning strategies to manage their emotions. In this case, don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help.