Why do teenagers do stupid things? While I object to the wording of this question, it is inevitably one of the first questions people ask when they find out that I study the adolescent brain. I began studying adolescent development because I was interested in learning how to better detect and perhaps prevent psychopathology. However, questions about teenage behavior and judgment were asked so frequently that I finally felt obligated to find some kind of answer.
Twenty years later, I have learned a lot, and while I initially objected to the question of “Why do teenagers do stupid things?” because I love teenagers, I now object because it is a misinformed question (as a teacher and scientist, I maintain that there are no “stupid” questions!). In fact, it turns out that there a number of reasons why teenagers do the things they do, and none of them are “stupid.” Some of the decisions that teens make seem foolish to adults, because adults forget to consider adolescent behavior from a teen’s point of view. Adults also often fail to remember that the teen brain is not quite mature, and that this is an advantage because it allows adolescents to keep learning and adapting at a much faster pace than at any other point in their (post-natal) lifetime.
Albert Einstein was well known for having said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” And while Einstein certainly did have special talents, he was very right to point out how curiosity is the force behind most of life’s most important lessons and achievements.
How many times have you thought “I wonder what would happen if I…?”, but then stopped short of actually trying out whatever you were curious about because you could foresee potential problems? Younger adolescents are much the same in terms of their curiosity but lack the neural coordination and socio-emotional experience to consistently make (what may seem like) optimal choices. What is important to point out here is that a teen’s brain and behavior uniquely situate them to seek out these opportunities for practice. Specifically, their reduced inhibition, their heightened drive to obtain potential social rewards and their preoccupation with peer approval work together to give teens the “guts” (or functional cluelessness) to successfully learn about their worlds. This learning literally shapes the connections of the developing brain, enabling it to thrive in the environment in which it develops.
To put it simply, adolescents need an “experience library” from which to draw. With more experiences to draw upon, teens are likely to make better decisions. It is really important to emphasize experience, not “success”—in the teen brain, all experiences are invaluable since they serve as the optimal way to learn about the rules of the world. When it comes to developing the neurobehavioral skills to make mature decisions, experience is success.
As a neuroscientist who studies adolescents, it has always struck me as a bit odd that adults often criticize the most functional aspects of adolescence. Saying things like “teens are impulsive” and/ or “they only care about impressing their friends” are meant as admonitions; in reality, these behaviors are actually evidence that the teen brain is working hard to acquire the experiences that will be needed to survive in the adult world. Adolescence is not always easy, but it is functional.
I recently saw an advertisement featuring one of my heroes: Serena Williams. It featured a picture of her as a small but clearly determined little girl and it read: “It’s only a crazy dream until you do it.” If young Serena Williams had been overly inhibited or not motivated by reward, she would not have become Serena. While not every teen will become Serena, nearly all will become adults whose ability to make mature decisions will be a direct consequence of the life lessons that shaped their developing brain during adolescence.