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When your teen does something wrong, remember the mantra ‘They’re missing a piece of their brain!’

During the week I met a Year 11 girl who wanted to apologise to me for something that had happened to her only a few weeks after I had presented to her and her classmates last year. She had gone to a small gathering with a group of friends, including her boyfriend (who had also heard me speak at another school), was planning on drinking but certainly not getting drunk, and things just went pear-shaped. She ended up being taken to hospital after vomiting for a number of hours, being placed on life-support and was now totally mortified after causing her friends, boyfriend and family so much distress due to her actions. So why did she want to apologise to me? I am paraphrasing but this is essentially what she said:

“I have no idea why I didn’t listen to you. I loved your talk and I listened to everything you said. You told us all the things we should do if we were planning on drinking alcohol, all the things to keep us safer and I didn’t do any of them. In fact, I almost did the exact opposite of what you said! You told us to have a fistful of food before we went to the party, I purposely ate nothing all day. You said we should have a glass of water to start the night, I had a shot of vodka. I have had a whole year to think about why I ignored what you said and I just don’t understand it. If I’d have died that night (and the doctors told me that I almost did), and you came back to the school and found out what had happened, I’m sure you would have thought that we don’t listen to you and that’s not true – I just wanted to say sorry …”

We had quite a long conversation about the evening and what happened as a result of the decisions she made that night (can I tell you, thank god for her amazing boyfriend – he undoubtedly saved her life) but it was obvious that she wanted more than just to make an apology, she wanted an explanation as to why she had made such bad choices. She simply couldn’t get her head around the fact that she had done something so stupid … During my Year 11 talk, which she had just heard, I had talked about brain development and the fact that teens have not yet fully developed their frontal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with reasoned thinking and judgement. I asked her what she thought of that part of the presentation and could she see how it could relate to the choices she had made that night? Yes, she had made some dumb decisions but she shouldn’t keep beating herself up about it. She had learned some valuable lessons from the experience and I can pretty well guarantee you that she won’t do it again, but why had she done it? Put simply, she was a teenager and she was ‘missing a piece of her brain’!

Strictly speaking, of course, teens are not actually ‘missing’ a piece of their brain, it’s just that there are some important areas have not yet fully developed. Development in the brain occurs in a back to front pattern, with the prefrontal cortex being the last area to fully develop, for females around the age of 21-22 years and for males much later (around 25-26 years at least, but recent evidence suggests that some development may continue until possibly even 35!). This prefrontal area is the part of the brain that adults primarily use when making decisions, i.e., we use reasoning and judgement and balance up the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ before we do things. With this section not yet fully developed, teens have to rely on another area when processing information and making choices – the amygdala
(the ’emotional’ part of the brain). This means they are more inclined to respond to situations with ‘gut reactions’,
rather than think through possible consequences, i.e., there is a decrease in reasoned thinking
and an increase in impulsiveness. They jump into things, often well aware of the consequences (let’s be clear here – the vast majority of teens are completely aware of the risks associated with drinking to excess, it’s not like they don’t know the risks), it’s just that they don’t think it will happen to them. Almost all of the decisions they make are based on the simple premise – ‘if it feels good, I’ll do it!’

Teens will do dumb things, that’s a part of being a teenager! Of course, there’s the issue of personal responsibility and when their actions affect other people (or endanger themselves), you can’t simply ignore bad or dangerous behaviour and wipe it off by saying that it’s due to their adolescent brain and their inability to think through consequences adequately. As the old saying goes – ‘Do the crime and pay the fine!’ When your teen breaks the rules, there have to be consequences. But it is important for parents (and their children) to understand why this behaviour takes place and so much of what they do and the choices they make during adolescence is due to their developing brain. Towards the end of my Year 11 presentation I always ask the students to try to think of something they have done in the past fortnight that literally five minutes after they had done it they thought, why did I do that? Their faces are always a picture – big smiles and sometimes laughter clearly shows that they can all think of something they did that just made no sense. Why did they do it? It’s simple – ‘They’re missing a piece of their brain!’

If you are the parent of an adolescent, or you have that to look forward to in the coming years, here is one of the most simple tips I can suggest to help you get through that time without going completely insane and blaming yourself for everything that is bound to go awry!

When your child is standing in front of you, having done something so wrong and so completely out of character and you feel like you’re a failure as a parent and they’re certainly a failure as a child, before you say anything to them, simply turn to the wall, close your eyes and repeat this mantra – ‘They’re missing a piece of their brain, they’re missing a piece of their brain, …’ You repeat that sentence at least five times before turning back to face them and have to start dealing with whatever it is that they have done and by the time you do, I guarantee things will look at least a little brighter!

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