What Does Brain Development Have to do With Teen Behavior?

As I read about or listen to parents of adolescents, the most common comment I hear is that their kids seem to be regressing not progressing. Complaints of irresponsible behavior, disrespect, and unpredictable, often-explosive emotions seem to be the mantra of many parents of teens. In some cases this could also involve high-risk behaviors such as drinking, drug use and other illegal or morally questionable activities. Although these behavioral changes around adolescence are hard to deal with, new research in brain development suggests they are fairly easy to explain.

Teen Brains and Juvenile Justice

A series of Supreme Court decisions is changing the direction of juvenile justice.  A report in the American Bar Association Journal digs into the impact of the Graham v. Florida ruling last May, and Roper v. Simmons from five years ago. Graham bars life-without-parole sentences for teens convicted of anything short of homicide. Roper bans the death penalty for children.  Both decisions were influenced by new research in developmental psychology and neuroscience that reveals how kids’ brains are different from adults’ brains when it comes to impulse control, decision-making and risk-taking. Researchers also maintain teenagers are more capable of long-term change than are adults. Reporter Bryan Stevenson talks with researchers, including Dr. Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, who “likens the teenage brain to a car with a powerful gas pedal and weak brakes. While the gas pedal responsible for things like emotional arousal and susceptibility to peer pressure is fully developed, the brakes that permit long-term thinking and resistance to peer pressure need work.”

Not everyone is on board.