Teen Behaviour: Why Teens Sometimes Do Crazy Things

The behaviour of teenagers is notoriously baffling. One moment, our adolescents appear to be mature, rational people—true “young adults.” The next moment, they’re taking foolish, inexplicable risks or having dramatic emotional meltdowns. In the past, these vacillations were written off as being the product of out of control hormones. However, modern research has shown that the roots of teen behaviour are more complex than we imagined. By taking the time to understand why teens act the way they do, parents can develop better empathy and guidance skills.

What is Adolescence?

Adolescence is roughly defined as the period between the onset of puberty and legal adulthood. Because some children begin puberty quite early—around age nine or ten—adolescence should technically include the preteen years as well. Preteens also typically exhibit the defining trait of adolescence: The pursuit of independence and identity. Teens are naturally driven to distance themselves from the family unit and strive to form intense peer relationships. Their brains also compel them to explore the world around them and experience new things. This is why teens are so open to novel ideas and prone to attempting risky things.

Why is Adolescent Conduct Sometimes So Challenging?

Like all kids, teens usually don’t intend to behave badly. They don’t enjoy upsetting their parents, and their heightened sensitivity means that they’re particularly aware of any disappointment they cause. Adolescents need our patience, understanding, and compassion while they attempt to navigate these confusing years.

There are multiple reasons why teens act in challenging and sometimes confrontational ways. Hormones form just one part of the complex neurochemical processes that underlie adolescent behaviour. The somewhat uneven development of the rational areas of the brain during early adolescence also plays a strong role in why teens sometimes seem “moody” and out of control. The prefrontal cortex may function excellently when your child is well-rested and content, yet still be vulnerable to breakdowns when he’s tired, hungry, or stressed.

Experts feel that societal expectations may also contribute to the internal strife many teens experience. Throughout most of human history, teens were granted the independence they naturally craved. Up until the 20th century, most people left school and started to pursue a livelihood (and a family of their own) during this period. Today, by contrast, young adults are expected to remain in school (and therefore usually at home) well into their mid-20s. This puts the intense urges for independence their brains are producing at odds with the restrictions of their home environment. As a result, many teens become rebellious or otherwise struggle to assert their newfound sense of identity. In non-Western cultures where adolescents follow a more traditional developmental trajectory, there is no concept of the “teenager” as we know it.

Indeed, many of the behaviours we now see as being difficult may have had important evolutionary advantages. Teens’ impulsivity would have allowed them to react quickly to sudden danger, for example. Their need to explore would have helped them establish new territory and find resources, and their surging hormones would have prompted them to find a mate early in life. At a time when many people died as a result of injury or illness before age 30, these traits were absolutely necessary to the survival of our species. Today, however, they usually manifest in ways that adults find annoying or downright frustrating: The desire to pursue material goods, an obsession with social media, moody and distant behaviour at home, and a tendency to try everything at least once, even if it’s harmful.

Research even suggests that, ironically, it’s actually teens’ inherent desire to impress others that often leads them to do things we consider disappointing. In one famous experiment, it was shown that teens who drove in a driving simulator maintained a cautious approach when they drove alone. When they drove with a friend in the passenger seat, on the other hand, they immediately began to take more risks. Ergo, the tendency of adolescents to drive recklessly is probably related to social influences, not innately poor judgment.

In the distant past, teens (especially males) would have taken similarly dangerous risks—like hunting large or predatory game—in order to prove their skills to potential mates and fellow tribe members. The behaviour served a practical purpose within their social hierarchy. In a modern context, however, the same impulses are interpreted as being nonsensical and immature. Interestingly enough, this penchant for apparently inexplicable risk-taking is common to all adolescent mammals when they’re taken out of their natural environment. One experiment demonstrated that adolescent male rats raised in captivity consumed more alcohol when around their peers than they did when alone—just like teen boys usually do. This behaviour was shown to cease once the rats reached full sexual maturity.

Other research indicates that teenagers are naturally wired to trust the judgment of their same-age peers over that of an adult. This is no doubt why, when your teen does foolish things, he often appears to be completely unreceptive to common sense—unless it comes from the mouth of a friend. Once again, this behaviour isn’t the product of intentional defiance. According to fMRI imaging, the parts of the brain that process social information are highly active when teens are in the presence of peers, and comparatively under-active in the presence of adults. In other words, it’s not that your child doesn’t care how you feel when he worries you; his brain is just set to prioritize peer feedback, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

Helping Your Teen Thrive

Unfortunately, aiding your teen isn’t as simple as removing limits and rules and giving him more responsibility. Younger teenagers still need boundaries and a sense of routine to thrive, and the lack of these things has been proven to worsen their confusion and discontent. Instead, what teens really need is the right kind of social support. Because teens are so peer-oriented, one of the best ways to help them moderate their natural tendencies is through peer relationships. When teens are connected with a network of well-grounded, like-minded individuals, they’re able to find healthy outlets for their energy. When a teen is able to impress his friends through sports achievements, for instance, or excelling in a shared hobby, his need to use risky behaviour to “show off” will naturally decrease.

Positive peer leadership also has incredible power to change adolescent behaviour for the better. Studies have shown that when popular students lead school campaigns against issues like bullying and smoking, the rates of these unhealthy practices actually do decrease dramatically. In summation, what teens need most, in addition to a stable and loving home environment, is a positive and productive peer community. If parents and educators can successfully create spaces for these kind of communities to develop, our teens will be happier and healthier for it.

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