Car Trouble, Brain Development, and Teen Risk Behaviors

02.02.2018 |

Episode #4 of the course How to talk to teenagers by Andy Earle


If your teenager was going to be driving your car and you knew that your car had a consistent problem, wouldn’t you tell them about it as you handed over the keys?

• “Pump the brakes going downhill because they stick.”

• “Jiggle the keys when you start it.”

• “Don’t run the radio and the air conditioner at the same time.”

When machinery is faulty, you warn people about it. Well, your teen has some “faulty” neural machinery that makes them highly attracted to risky behaviors. So, doesn’t it make sense to explain this developing neural machinery to your teen so they can be prepared for it?


How the Brain Develops

The human brain doesn’t mature all at once. It happens in stages. By the time we reach the teenage years, all the more basic parts of our brain are completely finished. But the higher order skills that will help us thrive as adults are not done cooking yet. In fact, they don’t fully mature until we reach our early-to-mid 20s.

In the adult brain, emotions begin in “lower” brain regions, like the amygdala, and then work their way up to “executive” regions, mainly the frontal cortex, which assess the situation and decide how much emotion is really called for. The executive regions then modify the emotional response to be a better match for what is actually happening in the environment.

But teenagers are in an in-between stage of brain development. Their emotional responses are really strong because their bodies are just putting the finishing touches on the brain circuits that generate emotional reactions in response to things like exciting situations and social rewards. But they haven’t yet developed the executive regions that are responsible for keeping these emotions in check and putting them into context.

In fact, studies show that teens have much stronger emotions than kids or adults. It is also why teens care more about what they wear and how they look on social media. They are starting to have these really powerful emotions in response to social situations, but they don’t yet have the ability to put these in perspective and realize that not having the exact same jeans as all their friends is not really the end of the world.


Teenage Risk Behaviors

The thrill teens get from doing risk activities is incredibly strong because the frontal cortex is not yet mature enough to keep things in check. And the feeling of connectedness and camaraderie they get from going along with the group and having a collective experience with their peers is insanely powerful.

For instance, in one study, researchers monitored people’s driving behavior both alone and when they had two peers in the car with them. For adults, it didn’t make any difference. They drove exactly the same when they were alone as they did when they had two friends in the car.

But for teenagers, this wasn’t the case. Teens were significantly more risky in the way they drove when they had friends in the car. This is why many states don’t let teens drive their peers around without an adult present for at least six months to a year after getting a driver’s license.


Teach Your Teen the Science

Before you jump into chastising your teen for their behavior, take a moment to explain these limitations. I know that you probably aren’t a neuroscientist. But you don’t have to be a mechanic to explain mechanical problems to your teen before you loan them the car, and you don’t have to be an expert on the teenage brain to let them know that there are some serious shortcomings with the way adolescents respond to certain situations.

Basically, condense the information from this article down into a few sentences and start the conversation off with those.

That’s Step 1. Tomorrow, we’ll cover Step 2.

See you then!




Recommended reading

For a more in-depth look at the teenage brain (complete with nifty diagrams), check out this Complete Guide to the Teenage Brain.


Recommended book

Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life by Mark Goulston


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