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Why Teenagers Do Stupid Things

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


It’s a fact: teenagers do bone-headed things that anyone in his right mind would never do. They do stupid stuff and when you ask why, they say something like, “I didn’t think.”  No kidding.

This sort of behavior can land them in real trouble, if it hasn’t already. So why are teens so thoughtless and what you can you do to help them wise up?

First, teens may look nearly grown up but their brains are still developing. And the part that is developing the most at this age, the prefrontal cortex, is the area necessary to evaluate a course of action and see consequences. This part of the brain isn’t fully online until late adolescence – about age 18 for girls and as old as 22 for boys. So when teens say they “didn’t think” or they “didn’t know,” they’re right. They didn’t really have even the ability to think things through or to know what might happen.

Second, teens are blinded by their own over-confidence. The under-development of their prefrontal cortex permits teens to inflate their own abilities and to think they’ve got everything under control. Teens can’t see all the details and possibilities so success at any venture seems simple to them. They feel perfectly capable of mastering any challenge, any challenge at all.

Finally, teens simply lack experience. We adults know where the pitfalls are. We understand that a child by the side of the road might dart in front of our car, so we slow down. We know water that is deep enough to dive into might still hide rocks, so we check before we jump in. We know that being asked to “take care of” something valuable for an acquaintance might mean that it was stolen and we know that receiving stolen property is a crime.

Teens don’t know everything, though they sometimes think they do, and they don’t have the brain power to think things through very well anyway. What can we do? How can you help your teen wise up?

1. Casually clue him in. Your teen may not want your advice, so you need to almost mention it just in passing. You might share with them your own dumb mistakes and let them laugh at you. You might wonder out loud about the possibility of danger, and let them realize on their own that danger was possible. Keep the lines of communication open without preaching or treating your teen like a child.

2. Play the role of spotter. Remember when your kid was little and you stood under the jungle gym, ready to catch her if she fell? You need to play this role again now, the role of spotter. Your teen will get into trouble that a more carefully thinking person would avoid. You need to stand underneath, ready to catch her and set her on her feet again. Don’t blame her for her thoughtlessness but help her make amends if need be and learn from her mistakes.

3. Continue to give your teen chances to make decisions. It might seem easier to just keep your teen indoors for several years until his brain catches up with reality. But the thing about brain development is that it requires experience to happen. The only way to learn how to see the possible consequences of an action is to have to make decisions that involve possible consequences. The prefrontal cortex requires exercise to develop. Make sure your teen’s brain gets this exercise.

And remember one more thing. While teens do make thoughtless mistakes, you do too. We all do. Each of us probably made a dumb error as recently last week. It’s easy to judge our teens’ stupidity as just that – stupidity – and forget that we made that error ourselves when we were fifteen and we made a different error of our own this morning. Life is full of uncertainty. We’re all learning. Love your teen.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.