What Were You Thinking?

That was the only way we could account for the bizarre behavior of some of our students. When it came to decision-making, it sometimes seemed as if they regarded logical thinking as an infectious disease to which they could not bear be exposed, for fear of catching it.

Of course teens remain human, but, as it turns out, our little joke actually possesses a hint of truth. Teachers and parents experience ongoing frustration at the seeming inability of their adolescent students and children to make sensible decisions. Why does a typically obedient child suddenly take leave of his senses upon entering adolescence, and what, if anything, can we do about it?

An adolescent often regards himself as his own worst enemy, and with good reason. As a boy's voice starts cracking at inopportune moments, his once smooth complexion becomes overrun with acne, and his quickly growing body becomes awkward and accident prone, it seems as if everything is working against him. No young man wants to go through this awkward physical gangliness, but it is a necessary stage of development on the road to physical maturity.

Now, researchers studying brain development have new evidence to suggest that similar changes in the brain may help account for teens' heretofore elusive decision-making processes. Conventional wisdom for many years had held that brain development ceased after the third year of a child's life, and the turbulence of the teen years was attributed to fluctuating hormone levels. However, according to an article published earlier this year in USA Today, “beginning around age 11, the brain undergoes major reorganization in an area associated with social behavior and impulse control.” So, as the adolescent body's growth results in physical gangliness, the adolescent brain grows in such a way as to produce a parallel “moral gangliness.” In other words, while an adolescent may know what is morally right, it is simply more difficult for him to apply that knowledge in ways that make the most practical sense (note that we said difficult, not impossible!). This new discovery adds a whole new level of meaning when parents exclaim to their children, “What were you thinking?!?”

In light of this news, it would seem that parents could react in one of two ways. On would be to give their kids a free pass, not holding them fully responsible for their moral decisions until they get older. The trouble with that approach is that teens are still responsible for their actions, even though difficult. No one has removed free will. Second, immoral habits and attitudes are most likely to form in the teen years, whether it be drinking, promiscuity, drugs, lying, etc. These habits, once formed, could come to define their adult lives.

The preferable option is for parents to safeguard their teens during this turbulent time. In other words, be aware of the fact that teens will have a very hard time facing up to tough pressures. That being the case, parents can help their teens by keeping them out of situations where they are likely to make big mistakes. Teens often groan that they want to be treated like adults, to be independent. But the fact is that they don't have all the mental tools of an adult yet and so shouldn't be forced to make adult decisions too early.

That means Mom and Dad must simply say “NO” when it comes to field parties, unchaperoned spring break trips, boy/girl campouts, dates that last until the morning's wee hours, hotel rooms at prom, and on and on. Parents mustn't be afraid to be labeled the “loser” parents. It will give their children a better chance at winning the moral battle.

After all, if God had wanted teens to be treated like full-grown adults, He would have given them the keys to the car.

(Tom & Caroline McDonald are Co-Directors of the Office of Family Life for the Archdiocese of Mobile, AL. You can email Caroline at caromcd@cs.com and Tom at cornhuskertom@cs.com.)

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