How is it that an adolescent who has excellent abilities to reason with his teachers, possesses the skills and knowledge to reconfigure your entire computer system, and can formulate a courtroom argument for a later curfew still manages to make the life-threatening decision to drink and drive? And how is it that your daughter will respond to every need and desire expressed by one of her friends, but can’t seem to hear your repeated pleas for her to clean her room?
“Separate parts of the brain control thinking and decision making and that they grow at different rates,” says Stephen Small, human development and family relations specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and UW-Madison.
“Consequently, your child’s ability to think things through, reason, and see the gray areas of an issue will be fully mature around age 16,” said Small, “and the part of the brain that controls decisions making won’t be mature until the mid-20s.” As a result, decision-making processes in adolescence are slower than they will become in adulthood.
Teens make the best decisions with more time, lack of stress and less external interference or input. It also means that when teens make spur of the moment choices, feel pressure from the school environment, friends (or parents), or are in the midst of an exciting social gathering, they are far less likely to make good choices. Their brains just can’t handle the decision making process efficiently.
“With all these changes preteens and teens are undergoing, it is easy for parents to feel like a bystander who can watch but is unable to do anything,” says Rebecca Mather, outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
“We like to think that parents are less like spectators and more like cheerleaders and coaches. You facilitate your child’s development and navigation of these huge changes,” said Mather, “you help them figure out what is happening and provide guidance along the way. You serve as a safety brake on their growing brains that sometimes have trouble slowing down their risky impulses.”
Mather, Small, and UW-Madison graduate student Anne Samuelson are leading a program for parents of preteens and teens ages 10-14 who are interested in learning more about raising teenagers. Those who take part in the program will have free access to an online educational and supportive parenting community and will be asked to respond to a survey about the website and their parenting experience. If you are interested in learning more about this project, contact Anne Samuelson at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://parenthetical.wisc.edu/