Teens are from another planet.
That would certainly explain why perfectly normal kids suddenly turn into sullen, moody teens when they hit a certain age. Or why parents wonder in amazement why their teen thought it would be a good idea to shoot Skittles out of his nose.
Actually, a lot of the ‘crazy’ behavior we observe in teens can be explained by what happens in their bodies, minds, and brains during their adolescence. So much is happening and changing in teens in a few years time that it’s no wonder they go a little crazy at times. So let’s do some serious hacking into teen behavior to discover what lies behind some weird or annoying behavior.
For example: that crazy thrill-seeking and sometimes downright risky behavior teens have. Why don’t they realize the risks of, say, jumping off a cliff, doing stunts on a skateboard, or, yes, shooting Skittles out of their nose?
The truth is that most teenagers are aware of the risks. Research shows that teens tend to overestimate the risks of their behavior, rather than underestimate. Yet still they often decide to embrace the risky behavior. Why?
Teenage brains are way more sensitive to dopamine than adults’ brains. Dopamine is a hormone the body releases that ‘rewards’ us with the positive sensation of pleasure when we do something we like.
Because teens are so much more sensitive to dopamine, they tend to keep seeking that reward by doing things that make them feel good—even if that involves risky behavior.
This would suggest that teens always choose to embrace risk for more or less emotional reasons, but that’s not true. Studies have shown that teens do make rational decisions, meaning they weigh the potential risk of the behavior against the potential benefits. And this is where teens differ from adults: they weigh these risks and benefits differently. For teens, the social reward of getting affirmation and respect from their peers often outweighs the risks they run. For them, the guarantee of getting social respect means more than the possibility of getting hurt.
Bringing up statistics to counter risky behavior is therefore not the best strategy, since teens are aware of the probability of these risks. What has proven to be more effective, is stressing the potential catastrophic results. You need to bring something to the table that outweighs the reward center in your teenager’s brain, including the powerful social rewards.
In a recent conversation with some (unchurched) teenage guys, I talked to them about the risks of engaging in sexting. What ‘impressed’ them most—and way more than the moral and biblical arguments we also discussed—was the possibility of being prosecuted for possession and distribution of child porn and possibly ending up on a sex offender’s list, thereby ruining their entire future. That was a risk they didn’t know about and also one they recognized the severity of.
The quick mood changes in teens can drive their parents bananas as well. “Himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betrübt” is how the German poet Goethe described it so vividly: happiness as high as the skies, deadly sadness—all in a few minutes time. And of course there’s the deep, deep love they can fall in…and out of in days time.
As adults, we’re tempted to ridicule these intense emotions, especially because they change so rapidly. But teens really do experience these in all that intensity—and they have a hard time understanding these emotions themselves. Emotions are abstract, not concrete, and because teens’ abstract thinking is still developing, they have a hard time identifying and understanding what they’re feeling. And they’re feeling so much, all at the same time.
It helps teens when we take their emotions seriously, help them process what they’re feeling, label it, and maybe even teach them how to express emotions the right way.
Teens’ struggle to handle emotions is true for other people’s emotions as well. Research shows for instance that teens find it hard to distinguish between subtle emotions on people’s faces. They get the big ones right: anger, joy, sadness, but seeing the difference between disappointment and anger for instance is hard.
As a parent or a youth worker, you can help them by defining your emotion for them. “No, I’m not angry with you, I was just really concerned when you were an hour late.” And remember that teens learn from you how to express emotions the right way.
Empathy, by the way, is a by-product of abstract thinking, because it requires being able to imagine someone else’s feelings. If you’ve ever been frustrated because your teen was completely selfish, blame it on glitches in the abstract mode, which can make teens quite self-centered at times. The older they get, the easier abstract mode becomes.
And what about the biggie: not being able to get your teen out of bed on time in the morning. This too is something teens can’t really help. Scientists have discovered that adolescents have a weird glitch in their sleep-wake rhythm, also known as their circadian rhythm. Because so much is happening in their brains and bodies, teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. However, they often aren’t able to fall asleep before 11 due to that circadian glitch, which prevents them from falling asleep earlier, even though they’re tired. That’s why teens are often so sleepy in the morning!
Teen behavior… It’s weird and often causes concern for parents. But, if we’re wise, watch their behavior and do a little research, we can hack their behavior, understand them better, and help them arrive safely into adulthood!