The teenage years explained

There are biological reasons for teenage behavior, according to neuro-scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. If you have a child in adolescence, this should be very comforting. It means that the erratic behavior, the whiplash between despair and exuberance, and the apparent inability to comprehend how their actions might affect people around them are not your fault. There are “biological reasons.”

Once, when I was a chaperone for a junior high dance, one of the girls suddenly burst into tears. It was like watching a star go supernova. One moment everything was fine. The next moment emotions detonated, threatening to engulf anyone standing nearby.

Fortunately there was a female chaperone close by. I did not want to get anywhere close to this explosion. “What’s wrong?” she asked the girl.

“She said my dress made me look like my mother,” responded the girl through her tears.

“Who?” asked the chaperone.

“My sister,” she sobbed.

“Is your sister here?”

“No, she told me just before I left when I couldn’t change, and there was nothing I could do, now everyone thinks I look like my mother…” the supernova continued on for some time as sympathetic friends gathered around.

The explanation for adolescent supernovas is the limbic system, the portion of the brain activated by emotion. It is hypersensitive during adolescence. The thought of something someone said hours earlier is enough to light up the limbic system like Tower City at Christmas.

That is half of the “biological reason.” If you watch the cars pulling into the student parking lot the morning after the first snow, you’ll notice many ice-covered windshields with only one clear spot that is about the size of a pair of ski goggles. In the driver’s agreement we signed with our teenage daughter, it is explicitly stated that all windows must be fully cleared of snow and ice. You might think this would be obvious. But remember, you are dealing with adolescent minds.

Fifty percent of the synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex die off in the adolescent mind. That is the part of the brain responsible for things like impulse control, planning ahead, assessing consequences, and appropriate responses. Half of their prefrontal cortex is detached and must be reconnected over the next few years. Half of their ability to plan five extra minutes to clear the ice from their windows is gone. Half of their understanding of an appropriate response to a father saying, “You’re not going anywhere until you can see clearly,” has been unplugged.

Here comes the limbic supernova. “But I’m already late!”

As parents, our prefrontal cortices have been fully attached again. We can calmly explain, “Five minutes won’t kill you. Driving blindfolded might.”

It’s our job to keep them alive until their prefrontal cortices are connected, and to avoid getting sucked into the limbic supernova. Remember, there are biological reasons.

RJ Johnson

I have been a priest for 16 years.  I spent the first four years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, six years on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, before becoming the pastor at Advent Episcopal Church in Westlake in 2010.  If anyone would find it interesting I have a son and daughter, which I refer to as a matched set, a wife, a dog, and a cat.

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Volume 7, Issue 6, Posted 9:42 AM, 03.17.2015