Research Proves It: Teens Don’t Use Brains

There is something parents of teenagers sometimes say when faced with the reckless, thoughtless and self-absorbed behavior of our offspring.

It's perhaps not the kindest thing we could say, but it turns out it's entirely true.

What we say is: “For crying out loud, why don't you use your brain?”

We pose this rhetorical question when our teens drive cars that have illuminated low-fuel warnings until the engine dies on the roadside or when they leave expensive miniature electronic devices in the pockets of blue jeans headed for the washer.

We ask this question when our teens succumb to peer pressure, or lead a group of friends into a dangerous situation. We always ask it when the police are involved.

And of course, it's the only thing to say when teens open their mouths and utter the unkind, insensitive yet routine comments for which adolescents are well known, such as, “You're such a jerk,” “You're a moron,” and “I hate you” (a comment made all the more hurtful by the sound of a slamming door).

Well, it turns out, “Why don't you use your brain?” isn't just a belittling, sarcastic, frustrated expression of parental indignation.

Separate studies by researchers at both the National Institutes for Health and the University College of London prove what parents have known for generations. Teens don't use their brains.

Apparently, the part of the brain that inhibits risky behavior may not be fully developed until age 25. This explains the price of auto insurance.

In addition to lacking the brainpower to assess risk and act accordingly, the region of the brain associated with higher-level thinking — empathy, guilt, and understanding the motivations of others — is underused by teenagers. Instead, teens rely on the posterior area of the brain — the part involved with perceiving and imagining actions.

So there it is. All this time we've been asking our teens “Why don't you use your brain?” and the answer they've been giving us — “Um… I don't know” — turns out to be true.

Research is good, and I want to be an enlightened parent, so I'm glad to know what I reasonably should expect from my children in each developmental stage. In fact, this has been my M.O. in parenting — finding out what's considered “normal” (give or take) and then setting my expectations accordingly.

I learned this strategy early in my parenting career. Katie, my oldest, was about two years old when my aunt came for a visit. Being a social worker and a mother of four, she was one of my role models and mentors in parenting. I was always eager to hear Aunt Mary's advice.

She watched Katie wandering around our back yard, eating dirt and sticking mulch in her ears (OK, I'm exaggerating about the mulch), and she said something I never forgot: “A two year old should behave a lot like a well-trained Golden Retriever. She should feed herself, nap frequently and come when she's called.”

Katie didn't come when she was called, so my aunt's insight gave me something to work on.

The point is, understanding what you can reasonably expect from a child is a good way to set your standards for appropriate behavior.

But this leaves me with a bit of a dilemma.

On the one hand, current research shows adolescents aren't intentionally cruel to each other, rude to their parents, and unable to control their impulsive (read: stupid) urges, but instead haven't developed the gray matter to think of more acceptable forms of communication and behavior.

On the other hand, am I the only one who thinks this might be a bit of a cop out?

It seems brain research may turn out to be the perfect excuse when teens insult and exclude each other, or when they deface school property or respond disrespectfully to teachers and other adults.

As the findings of this research are applied, will a lack of brain maturity become the all-purpose excuse that permits bullying and vandalism? Will this discovery keep teens out of detention hall, or worse, prohibit school administrators from applying discipline to enforce standards of conduct?

Can't you just hear some high school senior's attorney arguing in court, “But your Honor, my client must be permitted to graduate with his class. He simply has not developed the brain capacity to understand it is inappropriate to shout obscenities at his Chemistry teacher while using a blowtorch to discover the combustive properties of nitroglycerin.”

If you think this isn't coming, you don't read the paper much.

Neuroscience or not, I still think the age of reason comes at about seven. This is the age when I expect my children to understand that it's rude to be rude, it's unkind to be unkind, and it's dangerous to be dangerous.

I have to admit, however, that learning about the developing brain of teenagers does give me hope. (This is probably why the parents of young adults keep reassuring me that things get better).

In the meantime, I'm going to keep requiring that the teens around my house use what brain they have — or expect to answer that ridiculous question we parents can't help but ask.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 19 years and mother of four children from fourth grade to senior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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